(On DVD, January 2017) As far as mean and slightly seedy crime dramas go, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead hits most of the right notes. Featuring great performances (most notably from an often-naked Marisa Tomei, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, unfortunately playing a heroin addict) and a script that ping-pongs in time, this is the kind of low-stake but well-executed crime drama that doesn’t set the box office on fire but should feature in every moviegoer’s diet. (And I say this having missed the movie in theatres, only to catching a decade later on DVD.) The film does get grim as the consequences of “a simple theft” go awry in increasingly dramatic ways. By the end of the movie, you can expect a few deaths, a family torn apart and no one feeling particularly happy about the whole thing. Nonetheless, in the hands of veteran director Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead steadily moves forward despite a slightly too long running time, and has a few surprises in store until the end. Not bad, even though I’d be surprised if viewers will be able to recall much of the plot weeks after seeing the film.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I rarely think that movies are worth seeing solely for acting talent, but Doubt is an obvious exception, even more so now than when it was released. Meryl Streep is a national treasure, of course, and Viola Davis has always been a solid performer, but now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone and that Amy Adams has become a megastar, Doubt looks dangerously top-heavy with an incredibly strong cast. As befits a play brought to the screen (director John Patrick Shanley adapting his own award-winning work), the performers are the key to a dialogue-heavy drama. Every four of the leads got Oscar nominations, even Davis for a mere two scenes. Dealing with troubling allegations of abuses and what happens when beliefs (in God, in goodness, in guilt) clash together, Doubt is a drama in the purest sense, uncluttered by physicality or artifices—it could be a radio play if it tried. Visually, the film blandly re-creates a 1960s Catholic school, but the point is elsewhere. It’s certainly not an action film, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a thriller when it reaches fever pitch and truly sparks with dramatic conflict. The last line is merciless in offering no comfort, moral support or resolution. This is not a film that ends as much as it lingers.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) The reason to watch Scent of a Woman isn’t as much the well-worn mentor/prodigy plot (which is structurally similar to Finding Forrester, which I coincidentally saw just a week ago) than with its memorable lead character as portrayed by one of Al Pacino’s career-best performance. Colonel Frank Slade is a piece of work: old, blind but intensely charismatic despite his abrasive personality, he has a secret plan and drags a young man through a wild weekend in New York, at the end of which he intends to kill himself. Meanwhile, the student protagonist wrestles with matters of integrity and future prospects. Their interaction makes up most of Scent of a Woman, considerably enlivened by Pacino’s “Hoo-ah!” and his propensity for straight talk. (I suspect that most men who aspire to elderly crankiness can try to emulate his character, but don’t have what it takes to achieve it.) The movie is successful at what it wants to be, although (like many of director Martin Brest’s films) it’s far too long for its own good: At more than two hours and a quarter, Scent of a Woman doesn’t have the plot complexity required to sustain its duration. (Unfortunately, it’s tough to decide what should be cut, and if some of the film’s greatest character moments would be gone along the way.) Chris O’Donnell is OK as the young audience stand-in whose mission is to be amazed by Slade’s behaviour, while Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up in his big-screen debut. The ending is a bit cheap and conventional, but it’s the journey alongside an impressive character that makes Scent of a Woman worth seeing.
(Netflix streaming, August 2016) It would be tempting but unfair to start holding Mockingjay Part 2 accountable for the faults of the entire young-adult dystopian subgenre. Even though The Hunger Game launched the category in 2012, it can’t be entirely held responsible for the flood of imitations, including those executed as trilogies with split last chapters. Especially not given how many flaws it has on its own. Surprisingly enough, this last chapter in the Hunger Games series holds true to the third book’s second half, even despite the bad reviews and disappointed fans’ reaction to the end of the series. Here, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, once again holding the series on her shoulders) heads to the Capitol for a final confrontation with President Snow (Donald Sutherland, just as good in his slimy-cold mode) as the rebels are nearly done overthrowing the established tyranny. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up one last time in a small role that he manages to make much better. Of course, things aren’t so black-and-white: the rebels once again prove to be just as bad as their oppressors, Katniss is suffering from some significant psychological issues, she’s surrounded by a people she can’t trust and the Empire is ready to throw some tough obstacles in her way. The rest is an urban war movie with enough teenage melodrama (helped along by some brainwashing and questionable character choices) to reach most of the four quadrants. Some bits drag on and on, such as an almost entirely superfluous zombie battle in the sewers. There are a lot of special effects, last-minute betrayals, musings on propaganda and a downbeat ending that (as in the novels) makes a mockery of the first book’s initial triumph. On the one hand: how sad and depressing—are we sure this is what we should be teaching today’s already-depressed young adults? On the other: how daring and unconventional—isn’t such nuance what we’re always saying we want from fiction aimed at younger people? I still haven’t figured out, and so my rating for Hunger Games 3b remains in the middle range. But if there’s anything to push me over to a side in particular, it’s that I’m glad it’s over, because it means another dystopian series I won’t have to keep remembering plot details in anticipation of the next instalment. That may not be entirely fair to the film, but when you can mix-and-match elements from three different series in one common structure, it’s hard to avoid a bit of burnout.
(In French, On TV, October 2015) I’m always fascinated by the oddball pockets of pop-culture history, and The Boat the Rocked revolves around something I didn’t know about—the pirate radio stations that broadcast rock music from the seas surrounding Great Britain in the late sixties and early seventies. Writer/director Richard Curtis fashions an ensemble comedy from various anecdotes and music of the era, never sticking too close to reality (thus introducing anachronisms that even colonials will be able to spot) but delivering a moderately entertaining film with an unexpectedly spectacular conclusion. The film begins as a young man makes his way to such a seaborne pirate station, meeting its various eccentric DJs and getting a close look at the government’s efforts to shut down the pirates. Numerous amusing moments follow. The cast is filled with known names goofing off, from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unabashedly American DJ to owner Bill Nighy to Nick Frost as a sex-obsessed cad. Rock Music is at the heart of the film, so you can expect a great soundtrack. (Fortunately, the French version of the film retains the original music, which compensates somewhat for the loss of the original actors’ voices.) The Boat That Rocked does take a turn for the unexpectedly dramatic toward the end, providing a big-scale conclusion to a film that seemed happy without such spectacle until then. It mostly manages to hit its target, but there is a gnawing sense that the film isn’t as good as it could have been given its subject matter and capable actors. The sprawling ensemble cast gets difficult to distinguish aside from the name actors, and the episodic one-anecdote-after-another nature of the film doesn’t help it feel more coherent. This being said, I’ll note that I saw a French-language dub of the American version of the film (“Pirate Radio”), which reportedly runs twenty minutes shorter than the original British version – I’m not sure that more material would help the film (which already feels sprawling), but it does feel as if something is missing. Still, The Boat the Rocked is more than worth a look, especially if you’re in the mood for a music-heavy comedy.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2014) The root of the problems with Mockingjay 1 (or Hunger Games 3a) is the business decision, well before the movie had started shooting, that the third volume in adapting Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy was to be split in two separate movies. While there is some justification to the split (the book itself does feel as if it has separate halves), it means that this first half isn’t much more than seeing the lead character mope around despondently for a full hour and a half, with much repetitive material thrown in, over and over again. The pacing isn’t just off: it’s the entire point of the film that’s dulled by this decision. Fortunately, Jennifer Lawrence continues to be better than the material she gets: even a relatively low point like Mockingjay 1 showcases how much the series relies on her performance. It’s not as if the other actors stand there doing nothing (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s pretty good as a manipulator working against his former masters and Natalie Dormer gets a meatier part than usual here), but she remains the foundation on which the series is built. While there’s something encouraging to be said about the film’s production values, its jaundiced view of revolutions and the vulgarized exposition of propaganda techniques, Mockingjay 1 isn’t a whole lot of fun to watch – and if the producers stick to the book, Part 2 won’t be a bag of happy puppies either. But then again, I’m comfortably older than the target audience for this trilogy. At least it’s a bit better than most of its emulators have managed to be so far.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) Films adapted from John Le Carré’s espionage thrillers are a breed by themselves. They are not meant to be conventionally exciting, feature spectacular action sequences or make anyone feel better about the state of the world. They are meant to be (relatively) realistic interrogations about the nature of intelligence work in a world where nothing is either black or white. So it is with A Most Wanted Man, a contemporary intelligence thriller where murkiness abounds, protagonists don’t play fair (because they know everyone else doesn’t) and victory can be extinguished in a moment. It’s set in Hamburg, among potential fundamentalists, competing intelligence services and a flawed protagonist who’s trying to do his best despite the ambiguity of his circumstances. Philip Seymour Hoffman is terrific as a wheezing spymaster who think he’s seen everything: his world-weariness is only equalled by his ability to manipulate people and get them to do what he wants. Not much actually happens in A Most Wanted Man, at least by the standards of other espionage thrillers. But it does culminate in an unusual final sequence in which a signature is a victory, and where anything can happen at the most inopportune time. It’s not exactly fun viewing, but it does fit nicely alongside other Le Carré adaptation like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardner as meditative thrillers with just enough real-world ugliness to be refreshing. Don’t see it if you want an upbeat experience, but do try to see it.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) I’m not sure why I’ve waited fifteen years before seeing The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’m not fond of stories in which the protagonist is a serial murderer, but there’s a bit more to this film than simply rooting for an anti-hero. Part of the attraction now, of course, is seeing five actors at the beginning of their career, from Jude Law’s magnetic presence to Matt Damon’s versatile lead performance, to Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow in young ingénue roles, to an early good turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The other big asset of the film, of course, is the period detail. An impersonation thriller taking place amongst Americans living in late-1950s Italy, The Talented Mr. Ripley can be, at its best, an immersion in a romanticized time and place. It only becomes darker and more thrilling after a (too) leisurely prologue, then drags on a touch too long as it places its protagonist in ever-more desperate circumstances, all the way to a heartbreaking final act of violence. Slickly directed by Anthony Minghella from a now-classic novel by Patricia Highsmith, it’s a thriller that plays with questions of identity, aspirations, repression and the nature of affection. It’s lovely and ugly, with good tension and complex plot engines. The Talented Mr. Ripley has aged gracefully, and remains just as good today as it must have been sixteen years ago.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) Even almost a year after his death, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s presence is still deeply felt, and each posthumous film seems to remind everyone of what an interesting screen presence he could have. In God’s Pocket, he’s about as far from glamour as he could be, playing a down-on-his-luck blue-collar worker you gets entangled in a growing pit of lack luck and even worse circumstances. It’s far from being a cheerful story, and Hoffman’s hanging-dog charm fits perfectly with the poor-neighborhood setting. Unfortunately, he’s stuck in a script that doesn’t quite know how to balance the sad drama with the black comedy – at times, God’s Pocket goes from naturalistic social study to jet-black absurdist comedy without graceful transition, or even unity in its presentation. The very dark ending doesn’t help anything. Still, John Slattery’s direction isn’t too bad, and Richard Jenkins gets some attention as a journalist who’s ultimately too smart for his own good. In the end, we just want to get away from the place as quickly as we can.
(On Cable TV, August 2013) There are times where I feel guilty of apparently not being able to appreciate the acclaimed genius of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, and then there are times where I’m comfortable not being enthusiastic about his films. The Master clearly falls into the second category, as it meanders all over the place and almost forgets to actually tell a story. Much has been made of the film’s connections to Scientology, but don’t read too much into it: While Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a decent L. Ron Hubbard stand-in, and while much of his cult’s teachings find resonance in Dianetics, Anderson doesn’t try to tell anything close to a true story. The Master instead focuses on a man left adrift after his military service in World War II, and finding some purpose in associating with the burgeoning cult. Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable in the lead role, radiating danger, pain and coiled aggression in nearly every frame. Amy Adams is almost as surprising in a shrewish role far away from her usual good-girl screen personae. And much of The Master’s cinematography is truly remarkable, evoking a deep sense of craft in the way the film is presented. The problem is that none of those interesting things amount to an interesting story. The pacing is deathly slow, the loose ends are numerous and the conclusion can’t be bothered to actually conclude. There’s little here to satisfy fans of sustained narratives, nor clear meaning. I’ll still give a chance to Anderson’s next film.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) I’m not usually a good audience for the kind of low-budget, low-stakes working-class dramas exemplified by Jack Goes Boating. I like genre stories with imagination, high stakes, some action and upbeat humor… not slow-paced dramas in which self-destructive characters to their best to ruin their lives. Yet there’s something compelling in Jack Goes Boating; Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sad-sack performance is oddly likable, even set within a directorial debut that doesn’t try to glamourize his character. In tackling intimate issues about budding romance and confronting it to long-term commitment issues, the script confronts issues commonly left unsaid, and there’s a quiet elegance to the way it throws together plot strands in a universe essentially made out of four people. (You just want to invite two of them home, feed them dinner and tell them everything is going to be all right. The other two can go stew in their own self-pity.) Adapted from a theater play, Jack Goes Boating isn’t the most dynamic film out there… but it reaches its objectives, hints at a few profound truths and sticks in mind a while longer than expected.
(In theaters, October 2011) As with many backroom political thrillers, The Ides of March tells the story of how a young political wunderkind loses his illusions while working for a star candidate. If you’ve read Joe Klein/Anonymous’s Primary Colors or seen 1996’s City Hall, you have a rough idea of how this works. But familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as the similitudes taper off toward the end, and the result is a convincing look at the way American politics can work. Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of a genius-level political operative makes for a sympathetic hero, and he more than holds his own against such notables as George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. (It’s one of the film’s interesting choices to use a star Clooney as a superstar candidate, character-actor darlings Hoffman and Giamatti as seasoned professionals and Gosling as an up-and-comer –a good example of Hollywood typecasting working as casting.) Perhaps the best thing about The Ides of March is its pitch-perfect portrayal of the political process at the primary stage –the ground-level organizing, the dirty tricks, the high-level negotiations in dismal settings. Director Clooney does a fine job as portraying the grey nature of mid-March winter in Cincinnati, and the film quickly becomes a must-see for American political junkies, who won’t cringe too much at the film’s faithfulness to reality as we know it. It almost goes without saying that, despite being loosely based on a play loosely based on the Howard Dean campaign, The Ides of March is best interpreted as a what-if rather than an allegory of anything that really happened recently: despite the political in-jokes, if best to appreciate the actors working as character rather than caricatures. It’s unclear whether the film will have much of a wide appeal beyond left-leaning politicos: like many political thrillers, it ends at a funeral, but unlike many it doesn’t feature a single raised gun, conspiracy or assassination attempt. It’s this nominal adherence to a plausible version of reality (with a side-order of capable performances) that makes The Ides of March works well despite familiar ideas and a low-key presentation. Sometimes, you don’t need car chases and explosions to have a thrilling time.