Death and betrayal

I found it practically impossible to watch A Most Wanted Man without constantly being aware that the man I was watching on the screen was dead and this was his last film. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of Hollywood’s most unlikely stars and often one of the best things about the films he was in; this swansong, based on a John Le Carré novel, may not be one of the ones Hoffman will be most remembered for, but it is definitely a worthy final addition to his filmography.

A Most Wanted Man

As with many of the films based on Le Carré’s works, A Most Wanted Man is not so much a spy thriller as a drama, with a distinct tendency towards tragedy. Hoffman plays a jaded German espionage operative keeping an eye on the Muslim community in Hamburg, and when a former Chechen radical enters his hunting grounds illegally he hopes to use him as an asset in his investigation of a Muslim philanthropist with possible ties to Al Qaeda. While the film doesn’t present us with as much of a quagmire of connections, motives and plots as a successful other recent Le Carré adaptation did – and Hoffman’s operative is a descendant in spirit of George Smiley – it is about similar themes. Years ago the Swiss magazine Du published an issue on John Le Carré titled “All Sorts of Betrayal”, and apparently this is still what the author keeps returning to. All of these betrayals, whether of friends, lovers, or of organisations and countries, are finally private at heart, and A Most Wanted Man sees its main character trying to weigh betrayals, to tempt, bully and cajole others to violate trust to prevent a bigger, more final betrayal.

Except, of course, in Le Carré’s world there is no such thing as a lesser evil, and most definitely not one that can be trusted to end up being lesser. Even more, Hoffman’s body language, the way he looks at people and practices a studied cynicism, all these make it clear that A Most Wanted Man will not end happily for anyone. And this fatalism is in part why this is a good but not a great film: only in rare moments is there the urgency that comes from hoping, and even believing, that this may not end in tears. There is a grain of… faith in something other than jaded pragmatism, perhaps? Belief that even in espionage people, organisations and countries can still hold on to vestiges of a soul? And this belief keeps the main character going, but the tone of the film is as hangdog as Hoffman himself, though without his occasional sparks of hope and of righteous anger. As an audience, though, it’s difficult not to know better: this will end badly, so why commit emotionally? If anything, the film prompts us to be even more jaded than its protagonist, and this works against A Most Wanted Man.

A Most Wanted Man

As may the real-life circumstances: Hoffman’s death hanging over the film may make it more poignant, but this poignancy is not in sync with the film. I was prompted to sadness, though not by Le Carré’s story so much as by knowing that this is the last time we’re seeing a lead performance by an actor gone too soon. A Most Wanted Man is a good film, it’s crafted beautifully, its performances are consistently strong, but its greatest tragedy may be that it serves most as a reminder of a different tragedy that has nothing to do with the film itself. Perhaps it will be easier to see it for itself in five to ten years, when it no longer feels quite as much  like a obituary.

Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

Well, fuck. I remember a few years ago, just around this time, hearing about Heath Ledger’s death and believing it to be some internet-era hoax at first. Yesterday was very similar: I quickly go to check Facebook and see a handful of posts that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his apartment, and my first instinct is not to believe it. He can’t be dead. He’s too good. This is some sad internet joker’s idea of a good joke.

If it’s a joke, it’s definitely one of the worst I’ve heard in a long time – or the Great Big Casting Agency In The Sky decided to up its game considerably, because Hoffman was one of the strongest, most unique and least vain actors to come out of Hollywood. Here’s hoping he’s sitting next to Maximilian Schell right now, going through his lines with that half-amused, half-exasperated half-smile of his.

In Memoriam Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

Like so many people, I first noticed Hoffman on my radar when I saw Magnolia. He’d been in earlier films and had a poignant part in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights that was indicative of the work to come, but Anderson’s Magnolia put him in one of the leading parts, and rightly so. There was something seriously weird about the performance, but not in the quirky indie style that we’ve become accustomed to; there was no trace of that cutesy self-centredness in him. Magnolia: now there’s a film that was almost impossible to act and act well, for all involved. In the wrong hands, its lines would be overblown melodrama. Its too-decent-to-be-true character Phil Parma, among many others, would fall flat. Not so in Hoffman’s hands.

By the time The Talented Mr Ripley came around, it felt like Hoffman had always been there. Even though it was only shortly after Magnolia, I remember looking forward to the film because, damn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favourite actors! The part was smaller, but it’s one of the most memorable performances in a film packed with unusually strong performances. And again, that weirdness: Hoffman could turn on the most disturbing brand of camp that shouldn’t ever work, but he made it work – more than that, he made it essential to the character and so right it hurt.

It would be difficult not to go through the man’s filmography and pick scenes from practically every single movie he’d been in; personally I’m partial to his shlubby teacher in 25th Hour, an underrated film and a beautifully judged performance, and he was fantastic in Almost Famous or providing one of the main voices in Mary & Max, but also in uneven and mediocre films like Red Dragon or Mission: Impossible 3. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a film that works better on paper than on the screen, but when it works it’s because Hoffman made its central character inject an almost unbearing humanity into a story that constantly risks being tripped up by the meta Chinese Boxes it leaves lying all over the place.

For me it started with Paul Thomas Anderson, so it’s only right it ends with him. I’m sure Hoffman’s performances after The Master were as watchable as everything he’d done, but his Lancaster Dodd is all the proof that’s needed that American cinema has lost one of its most unique, generous and powerful voices – and while we have many indelible performances to choose from, it’s difficult not to be greedy and wish we could have had many more.

Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Based on a true trailer

Since we’ll be leaving the United States in just over 32 hours, we thought we’d check out another movie, if only for the experience of sitting in a movie theatre armed with a double espresso shot caramel macchiato and an apple fritter. I’ll never eat in this town again.

The film itself, Burn After Reading, was decidedly so-so. I think my main problem with several of the Coen Bros. comedies is that the characters are painfully flat and, as a result, I simply don’t care much. (The Big Lebowski gets around this by making its characters quite endearing and strangely poignant, which should be an impossibility with such a far out, potheaded plot.) Same here: apart from very few moments, all of the protagonists remain cartoons – added to which there simply isn’t much of a plot to hold everything together. While the individual situations are comical, there’s a “ooookay… what should happen next? dunno…” quality to this film.

So, since a lot has already been written about the film, let me talk about more interesting things: the trailers. Four of ’em, and all of them intriguing.

I’m not a big Meryll Streep fan, although I acknowledge that she’s a good actress. Much of the time she seems too much like “Meryll Streep acting her little cotton socks off”, just like Robert de Niro, even at his best, tends to make the strain of acting very visible. It works in some films, but I prefer acting that almost vanishes – or otherwise make it very overt acting that doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s an act. Having said all of that, this trailer made me look up. Added to which it’s got Philip Seymour Hoffman. Colour me intrigued.

Trailer no. 2. Okay… on the surface, this looks like it’s trying way too hard to win Oscars. Disability. Troubled musician. Based on a true story. Directed by the guy who brought you these middlebrow tearjerkers. And yet, and yet. Robert Downey Jr. can make most middling films interesting and Jamie Foxx definitely knows how to act. Also, based on the trailer the film looks beautifully shot, without going for the glossy, strings-swelling-triumphantly, one-step-away-from-Hallmark visual style.

I’ve only seen one film by Gus Van Sant: Finding Forrester. Yes, I like Anna Paquin, but that didn’t make it a very good film (although it was one of the weirdest, coolest, loveliest evenings and nights in my life that followed that film). Okay, I’ve also seen the vignette he directed in Paris Je T’Aime. I have no idea whether I like him as a director or not. Mostly I’ve read reviews of his films and thought, “Um… right.” (I am uncannily interested in Gerry, mind you.) Then there’s Sean Penn who, for me, is very hit-and-miss. When he’s good he’s very, very good; when he’s on a mission, he’s annoying as hell. But, I must admit, this trailer looks fascinating.

Finally, Frost/Nixon. So far I wasn’t interested at all. And if I’d remembered the director, my disinterest would have doubled, nay, trippled. Is there a more competently nothingy director than Ron Howard? But this may be just the right film for a bland director who nevertheless knows how to get good performances out of his actors. Added to which: Matthew Macfadyen. Yep – it’s Tom Quinn. It’s Henry IV. It’s one-eyed guy with bigass scar. (That last one was Enigma, in case you just went, “Huh?”) And the trailer doesn’t look like “Talky sort-of-historical film based on a play, with actors who wish they hadn’t played in those vampire movies” – it looks like a proper film.

So: main feature – meh. Trailers? Gimme more of that!

The Butterstumps Effect

They say that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Hollywood, DVD sales halfway across the world may skyrocket. This is exactly what seems to have happened with The Butterfly Effect, an Ashton Kutcher vehicle – and what is truly miraculous is that the phrase “an Ashton Kutcher vehicle” didn’t make anyone reconsider.

This film could probably be called Dude, Where’s My Past?, except that wouldn’t be quite fair. The Butterfly Effect is very different from that other vehicular Ashton Kutcher movie in that it tries to be intelligent, dark and deep. It is quite scary at first, though mainly because of cheap jump cuts and shrieking violins on the soundtrack, but it’s far less clever or tragic than it thinks it is.

The premise is intriguing, in a Twilight Zone/”Don’t think about it too much” way. College student Evan Treborn finds that he can go back in time thanks to his journals he’s been keeping since the age of 7, and he attempts to make things better for the people in his life, especially his love Kayleigh, by changing the past. Wacky hijinks ensue, of the sort that Ray Bradbury and the Simpsons got quite some mileage from – change one thing in the past, and a whole plethora of effects snowball from this change. Keep your ladylove’s dad from making kiddie porn with her when she was seven years old, and suddenly she’s not a suicidal waitress in a diner but your girlfriend and sorority chick extraordinaire – but her brother’s a murderous psycho. Stop a prank that went horribly wrong, and your chubby-yet-hunky best friend (described in one wonderful review as “Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Fabio”) is Kayleigh’s perfect lover while you’re – surprise! – mostly armless.

Perhaps if I rewrite the script…

The problem is… Actually, there is more than one problem. For one, while a film about something as fantastic as time travel cannot be realistic, it can still have some sort of internal logic. This film doesn’t. Some changes in the past have major effects on the present, others simply leave Evan in the same situation but with one or two additional scars. What makes the difference? Simply the whim of the script writers. When you realise that they’re the ones pulling the strings, for no other reason than “It’s coolest/nastiest/most tragic like this!”, you stop caring.

That is, if you cared to begin with; because, to be quite honest, there’s very little to care about in the film. Most of the characters keep changing due to Evan’s fiddling with the past, the effect being at Kayleigh 1 is a different person from Kayleigh 2 is a different person from Kayleigh 3. You know that in five to ten minutes, most of the characters will have been rewritten completely, so why should you feel any emotional attachment to them? The only person who remains halfway constant is Evan, and he’s a bit of a blank, with moments of total idiocy. I felt so detached from him that I had to suppress giggles when he woke up from his latest bout of time-travel with his hands gone and him screaming at his stumps. It just felt so phony, like the scriptwriters were saying: “Okay, he stops his mom from smoking in the past, so in the present his dick has been chewed off by rabid poodles!”

If I kill the scriptwriters in the past…

The film’s been compared to that other time-traveling weirdo tale, Donnie Darko. There are indeed some similarities, but they’re mainly superficial. Donnie Darko is less interested in its mystery/sci-fi plot, at least in the theatrical version – and that’s good, because the more prominent a labyrinthine time-travel plot is, the more apparent its almost inevitable plot holes become. Instead, Donnie Darko focuses on the characters and, in doing so, manages to become one of the sweetest films about teenage angst this side of Breakfast Club. It’s as if David Lynch and John Hughes, after a big breakfast of pancakes, pie and damn good coffee, set out to create a bitter-sweet surreal adolescent romance – and succeeded.

Also, there is simply no comparison between the character writing and the acting in the two movies. The protagonists in Donnie Darko live and breathe, while their equivalents in The Butterfly Effect are mere puppets on strings controlled by a puppeteer who is moderately competent at best. And Ashton Kutcher does a very good “bland twentysomething”, but there’s more acting talent in Jake Gyllenhaal’s left buttock than in all of Kutcher.

P.S.: One of the first pics that came up when I Googled “butterfly effect” looking for images was one of the Olson twins topless, with flimsy foil butterflies over their nipples. By god, I wish I could go back in time to keep myself from seeing that…