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Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Marvel Comics is known as The House Of Ideas. Many a memorable character lives at Marvel, and scores of writers and artists — of unquestioned eagerness but varying degrees of talent — are given cracks at bat with the company’s caped mascots, taking their stories further and carving new thrills while not ruffling the status quo too much. Naturally, this results in a wonderful unpredictability, with sub-par superheroes often lucking out and finding truly ingenious writers, and massively iconic heroes skulking around in poorly written and drawn panels. (For example, while there isn’t a single solid current comic featuring fan-favourite Wolverine, the adventures of the least interesting Avenger Hawkeye are top drawer right now.)

asm2And thus, for over 50 years of issues, we true Spider-Man believers have ridden the roulette wheel, knowing that for every fine writer and great story arc we’re also going to get some hacks who throw up clones and Faustian deals and the occasional illegitimate lovechild. We’re used to it, and like Peter Parker, that greatest of comic-book heroes, we take the rough with the smooth. And right this minute, while the Spidey comics are enjoying a significantly smashing streak, it is clear the Spider-Man movies have fallen into the wrong hands.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a drag. It pains me to say this, but Marc Webb’s film is a total downer, a film lacking in smarts, ambition or spirit. I began my career as a film critic ten years ago with this review of Spider-Man 2 — Sam Raimi’s excellent film that remains the gold standard for the superhero genre — and it hurts to cap a decade with a complaint about a sub-par reboot instead of a celebration of the spider.

This is an unforgivably boring film, and while it may not seem as instantly objectionable as Sam Raimi’s monstrous Spider-Man 3, it must be marked that at least the older film failed because of ambition, because of trying to do too much. Webb’s new film, on the other hand, is inexplicably slow and torpid, a haphazard and amateurish affair where the seams show all too glaringly. Save for a couple of relatively funny lines — and the devastating climax — there is nothing worth remembering in this painfully generic film.

I didn’t expect to be saying this, but a big part of the problem is Andrew Garfield. He’s a bright, gifted actor who certainly possesses a distinctive edgy charm, but for some reason he continues to play Peter Parker as elusive and sullen. There’s an angsty cockiness to him better suited to a tween vampire film, and while Garfield is disarmingly natural, he falls a far way from actually being likeable. It’s hard to relate to — not to mention root for — a Peter Parker so brusque, so easily irked by those he loves, and harder still not to yearn for his predecessor Tobey Maguire, who made Peter’s all-important earnestness come alive. Spidey’s a quip-flinging whippersnapper, sure, but that’s because Peter’s a good kid who pulls on an overcompensatory flamboyant persona along with that mask. In the (much better) first Garfield film, a lot could be chalked to the character’s confusion, but here Peter seems like a jerk all his own.

Things are worsened by the filmmaker’s constant indecision. Aided by a bombastic soundtrack — 80s TV cop-show style blare for the opening chase with Rhino, synth-heavy chanting for Electro later on — the film looks to be put together by a committee, eager to throw in something for every focus group. This means lots of heavy-handed flashbacks, constantly unclear motivations for the characters, action sequences that refuse to do anything cool, ghosts from the old films (literal spectres appearing now to confuse Parker, as well as feeble echoes of action setpieces from Raimi’s Spider-films) and an awful lot of melodramatic hokum.

Much time is spent, for example, on the villain’s origins, but they are handled so unimaginatively that we’d be (much) better off with a voiceover saying “Oh, that guy’s Electro. He can control electricity.” What we’re given are backstories from the mid-90s, say Batman Forever style… and if we’re invoking Joel Schumacher to describe a Spider-Man film — at a time when even Captain America can have a seriously good movie — then it’s clear that both power and responsibility have begun to grate.

asm2gWhat does work is the girl. Emma Stone is sensational as Gwen Stacy, seemingly as baffled as we are re: the ill-humoured Mr Parker. She’s smart, snappy,  knocks every line straight out of the park, and conjures up quite the chemistry, enough even to make up for her too-slack hero. In a deft touch, she invariably seems to sense Peter’s presence nearby — her own SpiderSense, if you will — and we can’t blame Parker for asking her to keep that irresistible laugh “off the table.”

Readers of the comic are well aware that this film features a crucial scene with Gwen, and while Stone makes it pop, Webb and gang stretch it out way too much, and then proceeding to chicken out and completely reduce the stakes. Sheesh. (Not to spoil anything here, but if you’d really like to get a feel of Gwen and Peter, I suggest hunting up Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s lovely “Spider-Man: Blue” and imagining what Stone could have done with that as a script.) Aargh. The scene itself might be half-decent in isolation, and its chilling to see Stone mirror precisely what Stacy wore in the books, but a film this mediocre simply doesn’t earn such a landmark moment from the Spidey mythos. (It seems to know it, too, which is why it tries to move past it very clumsily.)

This is malarkey, malarkey that bores for eighty minutes before coming to life somewhat during the last hour. There’s some very conveniently resolved nuttiness regarding Parker’s parents, Dane DeHaan — a dead ringer for a slimy Gilbert Grape — showboats hammily as Harry Osborn, and there are more than a few unsubtle teases regarding upcoming villains. (Meeting a woman called Felicia or seeing schematics of The Vulture’s wings leading up to the next installment would normally be a mouthwatering prospect, but right now they seem threats filled with more exhausting backstory.)

One kid holds out hope, though.

One adorable little runt with thin-framed glasses and a science project looks at Spider-Man as his hero and doesn’t care what people say about him; he knows he’ll be back and he knows he’ll be better than ever. And therein lies the lesson for us as summer cinegoers: it’s okay to prefer Tony Stark or Black Widow right now — till Spidey falls into the right hands, that is. For now we can go home, turn up the real Spider-Man 2 and watch Peter Parker try to deliver pizza.

Rating: 2 stars

~

First published Rediff, May 1, 2014

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10 movies better than 12 Years A Slave

Screw the Oscars.

We’ve seen who won and we know why, but 2013 was a year of much greater English-language cinema than the one that picked up the top prize.

The following ten films make for a very eclectic and unlikely list: there are two films starring Olivia Wilde; two films starring Adam Driver, two black-and-white films, and absolutely nothing in 3D.

The ones that almost made the list are gems in their own right — Enough Said, Short Term 12, The Place Beyond The Pines and Afternoon Delight — and I wish I’d watched Spring Breakers a few more times so I could finally decide whether it was great or godawful. It took much pedantic sorting and shuffling (and maybe a couple of tossed coins) to arrive at ten films, but what films they are.

So, I say again, screw the Oscars. Here are the real Best Pictures:

10. Drinking Buddies

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This. This is what all mumblecore should aspire to be. A less obvious but no less incisive look into a couple of relationships as they stumble along being all coupley, Joe Swanberg’s film consists of strikingly relatable dialogue mostly improvised by the great cast — Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston star, and are all great — with the director cannily riffing on their naturally bright, young vibe by dousing the picture itself in melancholia. Slick, very slick, and disarmingly honest.

9. Before Midnight

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Director and writer Richard Linklater reunited with actor-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for this unlikely, unflinching look at what may well be the definitive on-screen relationship for our generation. Before Sunrise sparkled in 1995 and Before Sunset dazzled us in 2004, but this third film brought up questions and ruminations of life and love in a way we never expected (or, indeed, wanted) Celine or Jesse to confront. It is a film that acts as balm, as mirror, as accusation. Heartbreaking, powerful and shouldered by masterfully long chunks of dialogue, it feels more confessional that cinema ought be. In a way, while reminding us that some things stay the same, this film changes everything.

8. The World’s End

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Beer never looked more like liquid gold than in the opening of Edgar Wright’s madcap genre-mashing finale to his Cornetto Trilogy, and that’s just the tip of the, well, the tipple. Simon Pegg — in his best written character to date — plays a swashbuckling saucer rousing his school gang from necktied-apathy to take them on a boozy bender they never finished in their heyday. Wright, shifting gear in loony but scrupulous fashion, throws us right into a whole other kind of film while never losing sight of his first one. The energy, the gags, the way the director and his actors full-throatedly embrace the ludicrousness of it all: The World’s End is a pint of perfection.

7. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Joel and Ethan Coen, those cinematic troubadours who croon captivating ballads about people we would normally just point and laugh at, are at it again with this gorgeous film about a folk musician fated to be but a footnote. It is a beautiful film about a depressing, mean man (played superbly by Oscar Isaacs) who naively believes his talent will see him through. It doesn’t, but it does allow him to bob afloat on the choppiest of waters populated by corks like him. And, in true Coen style, many a screwball. Stunningly shot by Bruno Delbonnel, the film wallows in Llewyn Davis’ misery, pausing only to let the brilliant music lift it to another level. Before hurtling it down again. The world, as Davis says, is divided into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people…

<Read the review here.>

6. Blue Jasmine

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Woody Allen’s film might well be an update of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, but Blue Jasmine is a crueller, sharper and decidedly more devastating tale. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is a delusional neurotic, a woman well beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her marriage, with a wheeler-dealer of possibly Belfort-ian proportions, has imploded after many years in denial, and now the Hermes-carrying Jasmine can’t afford cab-fare. Populated by fascinating characters armed with Allen’s typically quotable lines, this perfectly cast film throws up many a moment of absolute unforgettability. Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale all shine, but the film belongs to Blanchett’s Jasmine, for whom the meaning of life truly does involve the consideration of who one has to sleep with (around here) to get a (Stoli) martini (with a twist of lemon).

5. Rush

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The only big-screen spectacular to make it to my list this year, Rush is a rousingly dramatic film that sees director Ron Howard at his very best. The facts — about a mid-70s Formula One rivalry between two drivers that almost killed one of them — are incredible enough without embellishment, and screenwriter Peter Morgan takes what was known and doodles in the margins around it, amping up the off-track thrill. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl are terrific as British playboy James Hunt and Austrian genius Niki Lauda, and Howard swings his narrative from one to the other like a violently socked punching bag. Rush ends up riveting, surprising and compelling: one of the best sports films in modern times.

<Read the review here.>

4. Nebraska

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“You need to water these plants,” a girl tells her boyfriend just moments before breaking up with him. “These are plants,” she explains wearily, as if he — a fellow who sells hi-fidelity audio equipment while conceding its all the same nowadays — won’t be able to tell the difference. Meanwhile, the boy’s father, a silently grizzled old loon, is convinced he’s won the sweepstakes. Things are never what they initially seem to be in an Alexander Payne film, and this gorgeous black and white meditation on a father-and-son story tells an alarmingly universal tale of age and utility, of finding something to live for, and of the importance of a mirage. It is a lovely, languorous film, assuredly slow but enlivened by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s frames and by the dialogues, lines that cut instantly, memorably deep. Bruce Dern gives the performance of his career as the befuddled but bold father, while Will Forte does valiantly well as the son. Nebraska is a tale of men, who, like classic cars, are built to run forever — until they stop running, that is.

<Read the review here.>

3. The Wolf Of Wall Street

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“Golden words he will pour in your ear, but his lies can’t disguise what you fear,” boomed Shirley Bassey in the title track for Goldfinger, perhaps the greatest James Bond film of them all. A helluva track, for sure, noisily sensual and positively dripping with menace and power — but not quite the track you want played at your wedding. Unless, of course, you want to be the devil.

Leonardo DiCaprio forks his tongue to play Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, and the entire film throbs with a seductive, scary energy. This is an amoral tale about men who can’t spell the word ‘scruples,’ and Scorsese and his fellas dive into it good, getting their hands and souls dirty. It’s a horror story told as a farce — the most effective way to deal with a monster may be to mock him — and while it’s an intoxicatingly stylish movie, one reference to the 1932 horror classic The Freaks is enough to tell us what Marty thinks of these brokers. Even as Leo throws himself into the part with feverish glee, we see him constantly on the edge of implosion.

As we watch this heady timebomb tick, Scorsese and Leo scare us straight. Unlike his character, who’d rather die soon than die sober.

2. Frances Ha

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Can you live inside a movie? If so, can I have a one-way ticket to inhabit Noah Baumbach’s marvellous black-and-white Frances Ha, an instant classic if ever there was one? Baumbach’s film — and his actors Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver and Michael Zegen — so consummately capture the zeitgeist of a time and place and generation that were we wiped out as a race tomorrow, I’d want this film to be our tremendous-albeit-twee epitaph.

Gerwig plays the “undateable” lead character with a magical openness, as if she were a jam-jar missing a lid, eager to soak up everything from bagels to boys. She careens through New York with klutzy earnestness — or, rather, earnest klutziness — a cross between a Truffaut character and a bull in a china shop. Watching this precocious, cunning, irresistible film is like stumbling upon a burst of glorious jazz with a glass of something imaginatively-coloured in hand. Frances Ha is bottled lightning; glug from it till giddy.

1. Her

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“Choke me with that dead cat.”

It is a rare film that reduces a critic to a sap, and Her turned me into the lead loser in a Cameron Crowe movie. But ‘reduces’ is the wrong word; how about ‘lifts,’ or, better yet considering the film at hand, ‘upgrades’?

My review was admittedly more of a love-letter, but that is, perhaps, apropos for a film about a man who writes other people’s letters. It is a film of savage sincerity and incredible ingenuity, a film that stands above all others by dint of both heart and originality. Spike Jonze’s film is immaculately crafted, flawlessly acted, and looks and sounds beautiful: but those are just, I daresay, its technical specifications.

The magic lies in how Her makes us feel, how it strings us up and strums us into a minor key, how it makes us believe in socially acceptable insanity, how it haunts, and how — during its most enchanting moments — we feel we’re lying on the moon, on a perfect afternoon.

<Read the review here.>

~

First published Rediff, March 7, 2014

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Harold Ramis: So long, beloved Ghostbuster

ramisThere is a cycle, and the sight of a man falling from it is often hilarious. Writing about it, on the other hand, is less so. Explaining a joke — especially a bit of timeless slapstick, as with the bicycle — immediately renders it less funny; imagine the difference between reading a comedian’s monologue and actually experiencing him hurl out the syllables at you, standing-up for his punchlines. Given this ephemeral nature of comedy, which relies on so much from timing to delivery to context to flair, it is thus even harder to try and bottle down the impact and influence of a sparkling comic writer on generations that have grown up snickering at his words and his films. It’s hard to explain how much Harold Ramis mattered to us, and to the men who make us laugh.

Ramis was a killer writer, a sharp and incisive satirist with a goofy good-naturedness amusingly at odds with his fanged barbs. The balance made for movies that were almost entirely quotable and yet heartwarming, sometimes even inspiring. The pithy rarely found such empathy, especially in Hollywood. And so he wrote movies that shaped different comedic fashions of their time, like The National Lampoon Show, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes right up to Analyze This which, despite its dated schtick, has fantastically funny bits. These weren’t just hit movies, or movies that turned actors into stars — Bill Murray, for one, owes a lot to Ramis — but they were movies that inspired comedians to go out further on a limb, try harder, be more accessible, make their jokes land better. The ripple effect — through comedic directors like Judd Apatow, Jake Kasdan and many others who openly call themselves disciple of Ramis — has been coming to us ever since the late 70s. Like seismic giggles.

Asked about the way he captured the sensibility of the periods he wrote in, Ramis said in an interview, “I don’t know. I just did what I wanted to do and what interested me. As I tell writing students, the only thing you have that is unique is yourself. You can write a movie that’s like some other movies, and that’s what you’ll have: something that’s completely derivative. But the only thing that’s totally unique is you. There’s no one like you. No one else has had your experience. No one has been in your body or had your parents. Yes, we’ve all had the same cultural influences. We’ve all lived at the same time, watched the same shows, gone to the same movies, listened to the same music. But it’s all filtered through our unique personalities. And I honor the things that have influenced me. I’m grateful for whatever it is that became the particular lens that’s allowed me to put out what I have.”

In 1984, Ramis co-wrote and starred in Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, a film where — as parapsychologist Egon Spengler — he won us over as the truly cool Ghostbuster. For those of us who, in Goldilocks vein felt that Dan Ackroyd’s Stantz was too silly, Ernie Hudson’s Winston too overt and Bill Murray’s Venkman too dry, it was Spengler who made it all matter: he was the George Harrison of the quartet. While Ramis appeared in other films, it is his wonderful character in the two Ghostbusters movies that endures. We were all charmed by Venkman, but Spengler’s the one who made the Ghostbusters feel like a real team.

And then there’s Groundhog Day, a Harold Ramis film about an infinite loop — a lifetime of days that begin with Sonny and Cher on the radio and plod through the very same paces, over and over — that will surely be remembered as the filmmaker’s masterpiece. The 1993 film is an absolute gem, with Bill Murray at his best and the film managing to keep rerunning around in circles and yet staying fresh — yes, keeping repetitiveness fresh — thanks to Ramis’ deft, light touch. It is the sort of film that priests and philosophers embraced, talking about its beautiful universality of theme, about life being a series of endless variations on the same, but it is also a truly funny film. Something tells me that’s the bit Ramis, who we lost at 69, would treasure more. Just like he might appreciate a eulogy that begins where it ends, or something like it, anyway. So long, beloved Ghostbuster. Ashes to ashes, gags to gags. There is a cycle.

~

Also: I pick ten great bits of Harold Ramis dialogue

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First published Rediff, February 25, 2014

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Review: Spike Jonze’s Her

I love Her.

Once in a while a film comes along that is so original, so inventive and so graceful, so clever and so immaculately built, that being smitten is obvious. But this is no trifling affection; as I basked in the sheer loveliness of Spike Jonze’s new film, it’s orangey-glow warming my face and innards, I was awed and overwhelmed and smiling that moronically wide smile we usually save for lovers. I watched it twice, and can’t wait to again. I love Her, and I’d like to buy Her a bunch of daisies and serenade Her with a boom-box under the window.

her1This is a film about a man who falls in love with an operating system.

Our hero Theodore Twombly is a loner with a Nabokovian name who provides romance to those too busy to conjure it up themselves, via a website called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters, which is a far sneakier version of our greeting card companies. He’s nearly-divorced, lives alone, likes to wear his pants right under his ribs and plays atmospheric video games that seem endless — not to be confused with pointless — and yet happens to be what may well be called a professional romantic. He loves the idea of love, even if it has already walloped him in the gut.

Theodore lives in the future, or something like it. It may merely be just a better-designed present, an iPresent. It’s a world where things are beautiful and functional and minimal, where Apple must have won and Jonathan Ive dominates all, where form is charming enough to give way to function while remaining gorgeous. It’s never specified, but it doesn’t seem a distant future. It’s relatable to possibly an alarming degree, what with random chatrooms and the ubiquity of people walking around talking into their earpieces. (Twombly’s earpiece looks like a tiny seashell, as if perpetually held up in the hope of hearing the sea.) As night fades into day, we glance screensaverishly over skyscrapers for miles and miles; for this future vision of large-tall Los Angeles, Jonze has shot larger-taller Shanghai, and that says much about where we might be headed.

One unremarkable afternoon, Twombly picks out a new operating system that promises to be more than the usual, a digital consciousness that is not just intuitive but actually possesses intuition. He turns it on at home that night, and the setup question ‘Would you like your OS to have a male or a female voice?’ is immediately followed by ‘How would you describe your relationship with your mother?’ Twombly is stumped but must have gotten something very right indeed, for the next “Hi” we hear is bursting with buoyancy, a girl’s voice brimming with eager, spunky energy. She picks out the name Samantha for herself and Twombly sniggers. ‘Was that funny?’, she asks. ‘Yeah,’ he says. She laughs. ‘Oh good, I’m funny.’ She sounds delighted.

And so Theodore falls in love with Samantha.

The point isn’t that Theodore falls for the central conceit; the point is that we do. He’s a loner who hasn’t “been social” in some time, but we fall for Samantha just as hard as he does, and the romance they share envelops us. We don’t feel — like, say, in the touching Lars And The Real Girl, where Ryan Gosling is smitten by a blow-up doll — that the protagonist is an outcast making do with something unreal; instead Jonze presents us with a relationship we invest in and root for. It is a world where dating one’s OS isn’t at all unheard of, or frowned upon. It is uncommon, but for the adventurous, like the early-adopters who’ll buy an iPad the earliest, people looked at with bemused admiration by the curious and the smart.

The detailing is exquisite. Ever since computers have tried to ‘talk,’ and here I’m thinking of early MacinTalk, the only voices that sounded realistic were the whispers and, well, the exaggeratedly robotic ones. Samantha’s voice is real as can be, naturally, but its dreamy breathiness is often a result of her being whispery. Samantha does his basic tasks but is offended when he accidentally gives her a command rather than a request. ‘Read email,’ he says, and there is the briefest and most crucial of pauses. ‘O-kay, I will read e-mail for The-o-dore Twom-bly,’ she says in her best Data-voice, underlining each syllable with robotic syncopation. He laughs and apologises immediately, as if asking his operating system to check his email is impolite. And you thought Siri could be demanding.

Theodore takes Samantha out with him, fitting a safety-pin to the base of his shirt-pocket so that his ‘phone’-camera peeps out of his pocket, so she can look out and see what he sees. And the width of the device and the safety-pin are so similar that the pin looks like its base, making his pocket appear bottomless. Function over form, yes, but what marvellous form. This is a beautiful film thoroughly besotted with its own elegance — its fragility underscored by Arcade Fire’s tinkly-twinkly background score — as it deserves to be.

her2Joaquin Phoenix dons a moustache to play Twombly, and shows us that he too, the master of tortured characters, can grin like an aforementioned loon as he falls head over heels in love. It’s a wistful performance, and Phoenix is stirringly great as he makes Twombly vulnerable and flawed and oh so much like you and me. Scarlett Johansson shines as Samantha, enthusiastic and sincere, sensual and dominating, increasingly intelligent and thus increasingly exasperated. “I’ve seen you feel joy,” she says to Theodore, “I’ve seen you marvel at things,” her voice coming from a place so pure it seems unreal. She’s rousingly good, inspiringly good. We never see her on screen, but this is Johannson at her finest. We sense her growth as she starts off asking questions about everything and is soon “proud of feeling” her own feelings, and we are both amused and afraid of her at different points in the film.

It is rare to watch a film and feel your jaw drop as you, well, “marvel at things.” Her could easily and cleverly have been a satire, but Jonze’s film — which, contrary to what this review might have led you to believe, does contain other people, co-workers and friends and beautiful ex-wives and real women to touch and kiss and feel —  is more affectionate than it is cold, more full-blooded than it is brutal. Her is, by far, the best picture of the year, and miles ahead of the other Oscar nominated films, but those comparisons don’t seem at all relevant when I sit back and smile (stupidly wide) at the impressions the film has left. This review, believe me, could be six times its size.

For all its conceptual highs, Her is not a film about technology, though it is partly a cautionary fable. This is a film about love. A film to love.

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, 14 February 2014

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Your favourite PSH film?

Philip Seymour Hoffman has left us. But his films will endure.

Which is your favourite PSH performance?

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Philip Seymour Hoffman: Goodbye, Master

That fat guy.

The first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman was in Scent Of A Woman, playing an uppity prep-school bully. I vividly remember that floppy hair falling onto his round face, scrunched up all the time, as if the sun was glaring right into his eyes even in the shade. That fat guy who made the sickeningly sweet hero appear noble, that fat guy with the smirk of superiority spread across his mug.

He began popping up in notable movies, movies like Patch Adams and When A Man Loves A Woman which got a lot of television-time, and genuinely great movies where he played weirdos, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia and The Big Lebowski. Here was a young and seemingly fearless guy, a guy deftly turning into one of those character actors New York Times reviewers call “reliably excellent.”

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Then, in a landmark Cameron Crowe movie called Almost Famous, he played legendary rock critic Lester Bangs and guided many of my generation about journalism. Too cool to act cool, he acerbically gave us the straight dope: about life and faith and conviction and rock, and when I turned film critic a few years later, I picked his words as my survival mantra:

“You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much. But you’ll get free records from the record company. And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.”

(Thank you, PSH. Truly.)

It takes a lot to sell words that fiendishly simple, and Hoffman did it with such authority that while he might not have been the film’s leading man, he emerged its brightest light. Its golden god, as it were.

And it was in him we found a man willing to debase himself, to play the fool, to go out on whatever limb was furthest, all for the glory of the movie. The length of the role never mattered, and — unlike in A Late Quartet, which contained one of his finest performances — Hoffman had no trouble playing second violin.

Soon it became clear that he was one of those special actors who made an impression no matter what cinematic world he inhabited. In 2004, he appeared in a hideous film called Along Came Polly, a Ben Stiller vehicle where Hoffman’s Sandy Lyle spoke candidly about “sharting”, a grotesque scatological gag about how he defecated while breaking wind, and did it so often he’d had to coin a word for it. It was an… unfortunate film, and I wondered whether he was to be mired forever in material so clearly beneath him.

One year later, he won the Best Actor Oscar for Capote: a performance where this grizzly giant turned small and fey purely by mannerism; a performance that, through its cold mercilessness, remains a scalding critique of writer Truman Capote. Suddenly it became clear that this man could do anything at all. He could be funny, vicious, profane, cunning, brilliant, slackjawed, omniscient, obsequious, perverse, perfect — and he shone each time, often more dazzling than the films he was in. A lumbering large man who — when need be — could swiftly twist and burst into song, nimbly tangoing with a roomful of naked women.

latequartetThat fat guy. Even that girth seemed to affect different approaches in service to the material: he could be genially plump, imposingly Falstaffian, a bloated artist, a chubby romantic, a stout sibling, a flabby film-writer.. And all while staying the same size. To paraphrase something an iconic actor once told another icon who shared Philip Seymour’s last name: other performers starved for parts or stuffed themselves with protein, but Hoffman acted.

His filmography boasts of some of the finest directors of all time: Sidney Lumet, The Coen Brothers, David Mamet, Mike Nichols, Cameron Crowe. And his most significant collaboration was fittingly with a filmmaker regarded the most talented of his generation. Paul Thomas Anderson cast Hoffman whenever he could, and the duo grew together — from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia to Punch-Drunk Love to The Master — bold and defiant and majestic, rising dizzyingly past any expectations.

The last few years showed his willingness to hurtle past any boundary, to endow simple parts with bittersweet nuance, and to dare writers to come up with a performance that would be a challenge. Charlie Kaufman scooped up the gauntlet and wrote the impossible Synecdoche, New York — about an artist who creates a New York within New York, one that mirrors his shambolic life through a warped lens — and Hoffman trounced the writing, rising above the meta-trickery and giving us a bravura performance that might well be his legacy. A blowhard and a nitpicker, a failure and a bastard, a genius and a true visionary. It’s all there, and thanks to his propensity to stun us, that might not even be part of your top three Philip Seymour Hoffman films.

That, in fact, might have been his greatest feat. To surprise us every single time, come what may. To show us a simple enough boxed-up character and then spring out in a way we could never anticipate. He’d roll up his sleeves, make us understand and believe and wait, and then — with a flourish, while his patter enchanted us — the stubbly master would yank a rabbit out of his baseball cap. Always without warning. Always off-guard.

And now he’s dead. Before the devil could know it.

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First published Rediff, February 4, 2014

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Review: The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis

1961. The sixties but not quite The Sixties just yet. America had picked up a revolutionary new guitar but was only beginning to learn how to strum, plucking at it tentatively as genres and heroes and venues were birthed and discarded in blinks of sleepless eyes. Within the outstretched canvas of limitless hope there lies many a dead-end of bleak disillusionment.

llewyn1It is here that we meet our dour leading man, Llewyn Davis, without a home or a winter coat or any genuine prospects. He gets by with a little help from… one would say friends, but he doesn’t have any. The only one, his musical collaborator, Mike, has thrown himself (non-traditionally) off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn might not have triggered the suicide, we never get details, but from what we see of his disposition — and his ability to turn everything to shit, “like King Midas’ idiot brother” — he isn’t likely to have helped matters much.

And so we smile drily as canny storytellers Joel and Ethan Coen give us a stumbling, unheroic protagonist and rigorously zoom in on every wart. Everything about Davis is almost cartoonishly miserable except when, eternally against the odds, he picks up his six-string and sings. The film and its viewers, the leading man and his listeners, are immediately changed by what is simple and sublime, graceful but grounded. For all his scratched and blemished life, Davis happens to be a flawless musician, a troubadour who deserves ears and cheers.

Yet, as we see at the beginning and the end of the film, as Llewyn Davis winds up a stunning set and a 20-year-old Robert Zimmerman sits down to begin his passage toward immortality, even this irascible, ever-dismissive protagonist feels his jaw drop and realise that — while standing so close to the real thing, on a night that could have changed everything — he is but a talented doodle in the margins, not fit even to be a footnote.

Instead, he gets socked in a back-alley.

Davis is played with remarkable ease by Oscar Isaac, an actor who marvellously blurs the line between performance and documentary-like realism. He’s tired and disgruntled and so jaded his stoniness seems obvious. He needs a night’s sleep, but — nomadically going from couch to couch in an era before websites and hipsters made it cool — that is easier said than found. A professor and his wife do indeed welcome him unconditionally and with open arms, but he snaps at them and loses their cat. (The cat, by the way, is called Ulysses, like the book based on The Odyssey, a book Joel and Ethan once turned into the magnificent O Brother, Where Art Thou? This new film, in case you’re wondering, has a soundtrack even richer than that great musical.)

The Coen landscape is characteristically populated by oddballs, and all of them in this one are tied to volume. Davis’s ineffective manager, Mel, lives in a dimly lit office, likes attending funerals and gets into loud exchanges with his ancient secretary. “You got Cincinatti?”, he yells. “You want it?”, she barks back. “Could I have it?”, “Should I bring it?” and so continues the hard-of-hearing tango. A young soldier denounces comfort and eats cereal loudly, and proves — despite his Llewyn-frustrating squarishness — to be a better-liked musician than our befuddled beardo. A big-time producer squelches as he walks into a music hall past upturned chairs.  A beat poet called Johnny 5 lies about his cigarettes and sits in near-defiant silence, while his companion, a jowly jazz musician named Roland Turner, is introduced to us by the sounds he makes when he wakes up with literal squeaks and gasps.

Turner, played by Coen favourite John Goodman, is an uproarious character, a cane-wielding weirdo who cuts off his own stories to start new ones, always obnoxious and quite regal in his pushiness. He’s worth a movie all his own, and — like the music — single-handedly makes Llewyn’s life (and ours) infinitely more interesting. But Davis doesn’t care, and in this destructive, all-encompassing derision lies the Coen’s masterstroke: his antipathy toward the world makes him loathsome but fascinating. Joel and Ethan and Llewyn never let up, and we watch and smirk and commiserate and feel the despondent stupor descend upon us, sliced occasionally by the music, shining in like sun streaming into a dank attic.

llewyn2Davis doesn’t even sing to reach his audience. To a Chicago music producer, he sings an English ballad, The Death Of Queen Jane, about one of King Henry VIIIs doomed wives. In a line hilariously echoed by the Merchant Marines when he goes to sign up, he’s rightly told he’s not current. It’s a catastrophically bad decision to pick a miserable lament while pitching to a man used to selling out venues, but on some level Davis believes — and this may well be all that Llewyn believes — in the purity of the song. And how it can transcend everything.

He isn’t wrong. When we sit alongside the producer, played by the wonderful F Murray Abraham, the song transports us to a different plane. As does this fantastic film. It might just be A Mighty Wind in extreme close-up, or the Coens filling in another blankly open-ended tale as brilliantly as only they can, but the thing to remember about Inside Llewyn Davis is that while it might not be new, it never gets old.

Rating:  Four and a half stars

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First published Rediff, January 10, 2014

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