Philip Seymour Hoffman

Academy Award winning actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, dead at 46

Academy Award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead on the morning of February 2, 2014.

Best known for his Oscar-winning performance in "Capote," Hoffman was an incredibly gifted actor on both the stage and screen. His career began in 1991 with an episode of “Law and Order,” but took off after his role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s "Boogie Nights." His repeated collaboration with Anderson is one of the many things that sticks out in Hoffman’s extensive filmography. He appeared in almost all of the writer-director’s films, including "Magnolia," "Punch Drunk Love" and 2012’s "The Master," in which Hoffman gives one of the biggest performances of his — or any — career. He recently directed and starred in "Jack Goes Boating," which his first time behind the camera. His last film was "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

Hoffman never lacked critical adoration, especially after the success of "Capote." He received four Academy Award nominations in the past decade and won one — Best Actor in a Leading Role in 2006 for his performance in "Capote." In a review of the 2012 Broadway production of  "Death of a Salesman," in which Hoffman starred as Willy Loman, New York Times critic Ben Brantley called him “one of the finest actors of his generation." Hoffman was, and should be, in the running for finest actor of any generation, not because of loud scenery chewing or showy transformations, but because he was a genuine artist and collaborator. Even when he finally got the recognition he deserved, Hoffman was never too good for the material or his costars. He’s as fun to watch in the goofier stuff as he is compelling in the heavy.

One of the best things about watching Hoffman act is that it never looks like he’s acting. He truly became every character he played. He could do big roles as well as anyone. "Capote" could have been one of those dime-a-dozen biopics where the actor chooses one or two social tics and and an accent and runs with it. But In "Capote," Hoffman recreated a real person rather than a caricature of one. His Truman Capote has completely fleshed out reactions, desires and emotions, where a lesser actor would have focused on just the voice or sexuality. And Hoffman nails that too, of course. It’s amazing to hear how perfectly he mimics his subject, not just the voice, but the way he straightens his glasses, the way he drinks and the way he lies. Nothing is motiveless in a Hoffman performance. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman had the energy to blow Meryl Streep offscreen, but the intelligence to know exactly how to use it. When he worked, it was like he was holding a nuclear reactor: he had limitless raw power, but complete control over how much he let out. That's why Hoffman was as great as he was — he always knew exactly what to do. That’s what made him the master.

As soon as “The Hunger Games” books attained massive popularity, it was inevitable that they would be adapted into an equally popular film series, and the first film certainly made a big impression on the box office. “Catching Fire,” the hotly anticipated sequel, irons out many of the wrinkles from the first film while following an almost identical formula. It appears to be a fairly faithful adaptation, but it’s also an incomplete film, more interested in getting pieces into place for the next film than telling its own story.

This sequel follows Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the most recent victors of the Hunger Games, a brutal method of population control that pits teenagers against each other in a fight to the death. As Katniss and Peeta are paraded around the country on a victory tour, they struggle to maintain a mostly feigned romance, with the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) breathing down their necks. After their tour, Snow announces the 75th Hunger Games will use victors from past games, sending Katniss and Peeta back into the arena once again.

“Catching Fire”’s first half hour moves efficiently, establishing its principal stakes and conflicts, but then takes its time getting to the event, opting instead to set up the oppressive government that serves as the series’ antagonist. The struggle against “the man” is a familiar narrative, but “Catching Fire” fails to bring any originality to it. This institution is fairly one-dimensional, its self-serving injustice is more cartoonish and repetitive than self-righteously compelling, and there’s little in the way of development or motivation for the cardboard leaders at its head.

That oppressive government is represented by the perfectly menacing Sutherland and the absolutely chilling Philip Seymour Hoffman. At this point in his career, Hoffman can turn in a great performance while barely trying. Even as he coasts on his icily aloof persona, he’s almost the best thing about “Catching Fire,” only bested by Lawrence.

In the first “Hunger Games,” Lawrence did admirable work as a stubborn heroine thrust into a terrible situation, but her performance here is markedly better. Katniss is profoundly damaged after the events of the first film, and Lawrence visibly wears the weight of her actions, bringing a conflicted determination to her role. Throughout the film, Lawrence elevates every scene she plays, and it’s the kind of performance that reminds viewers exactly why Lawrence is in such high demand these days.

Despite the strong performances on display, “Catching Fire”’s greatest weakness is its source material. The most interesting element of the first film was the interplay between the different tributes heading into war together. This film mostly eschews that, as Katniss, Peeta and the allies spend most of their time battling external threats, like poisonous fog and rabid baboons.

The games are essentially abandoned when the film demands it, and a late-in-the-game twist robs Katniss of any agency, revealing her as a pawn in a much larger and, presumably, more interesting plot. Even more frustrating than realizing the Hunger Games were a distraction to hide the real plot of the film is “Catching Fire”’s cliffhanger, a monumental occurrence robbed of any impact by being summed up in a line of dialogue rather than a sorely needed visual representation.

“Catching Fire” is a better film than the first one. Its characters are more fleshed out, and the actors are sharper and more comfortable in their roles. Director Francis Lawrence does a great job with the lush jungle setting of the games but fails to craft a complete story. The film’s final twists reveal it as more “The Matrix Reloaded” than “The Empire Strikes Back,” a middle chapter designed to get the pieces into place for a big finale. While fans of the book will certainly appreciate the devotion of this adaptation, newcomers may find themselves wondering what all the fuss is about once the credits roll.

By now, Paul Thomas Anderson films are practically cinematic events. Anderson’s work is known for its surgically precise imagery, performances beyond reproach and distinct soundtracks that “The Master” is happy to oblige. What it does lack is a strong script.

Not to say Anderson hasn’t baited a compelling hook for his audience. The story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran set adrift into an affluent postwar America, isn’t quite like anything you’ve seen before. Freddie is helplessly compulsive to the point of being self-destructive and Phoenix plays the character with a perpetual snarl, a force of nature just looking for an excuse. He is a harsh presence in appearance, demeanor and even in the way he delivers dialogue. Every scene has an added edge simply because there is no way to predict what Freddie is going to do.

Early in the film, Freddie stumbles onto a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the enigmatic leader of a movement called “The Cause.” Almost immediately, they inspire a madness in each other. Something in the boy inspires Dodd in a way that his followers cannot. The moments between Freddie and Dodd, small-scale sparring matches, are the best and most illuminating “The Master” has to offer. Much has been made of the similarities between “The Cause” and Scientology, and scenes where Dodd puts Freddie through a few of his “scientific” experiments are absolutely riveting, both for the character work on-screen and their inspiration off-screen.

Hoffman’s performance is largely built around Dodd’s interactions with Freddie. His slow ideological seduction is fascinating to watch simply for how completely Hoffman embodies the character. When Dodd takes to the pulpit, we see a different side of him, almost a different character, and Hoffman demonstrates remarkable charisma as he delivers verbal manure so convincingly that you almost buy into his schtick.

Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s steadfast wife, is sparsely utilized, but when she is, she’s a fiery, supportive partner, seized with legitimate fervor in her husband and the empire he’s building. It’s a beautifully impassioned performance and one of the many elements that could use some filling out.

There’s no denying that “The Master” is packed with compelling ingredients, but the final dish is shapeless and unsatisfying. The best word to describe the film upon first viewing is “chewy,” peppered with moments of undeniable brilliance and dramatic resonance, but so maddeningly oblique that it’s hard to swallow.

Freddie and Dodd are fascinating figures and “The Master” spends a lot of time wallowing in their dynamic, but it ultimately fails to pay off those interactions. The final scene between the two is a dramatic moment crippled by writing that sucks out any energy or feeling despite boasting one of Hoffman’s most beautifully acted moments in the film. Certainly traditional storytelling isn’t a requirement for classic cinema, but there’s a reason dramatic structure dictates a beginning, middle and end, a satisfying conclusion that “The Master” simply lacks.

Even if his script isn’t quite the connective tissue it should be, Anderson is at the top of his game in every other aspect. His images are crafted with a confidence and precision that very few working directors possess, and every frame of “The Master” is a work of art, each element exactly where it should be. The Alamo Drafthouse recently outfitted its downtown location with the ability to show films in 70mm simply so it could play the film how Anderson intended. If you get a chance to see the film in that fashion, absolutely do so. There aren’t many sweeping visual flourishes, and many of its biggest scenes consist of close-ups, but the level of detail that 70mm allows is unprecedented and gorgeous.

The film is a technical marvel to boot. Jonny Greenwood’s score is practically magic: a seductive, emphatic work that adds dramatic weight to even the smallest moment. Even things that usually go unnoticed, like costume and production design, stick out here, and Anderson’s attention to detail deserves commendation. He’s created a real and unique world for his characters here, and that alone is an achievement.

The best films leave you with a sense of elation, a feeling that you’ve seen something truly special, and there are parts of “The Master” that inspire that childlike giddiness. Phoenix and Hoffman’s work, Greenwood’s score and many of the images that Anderson captures are among the best of the year, but when the credits roll, that rush of having connected with a film on a purely emotional level simply isn’t there. Not that “The Master” doesn’t deserve multiple viewings, because I can’t wait to see the film again and hope that many of my issues with it are allayed by a second viewing. Nonetheless, “The Master” is my favorite working filmmaker taking a step back for the first time, and that’s perhaps the biggest disappointment it has to offer.

George Clooney directs and stars in political drama “The Ides of March,” featuring a full cast of well-known actors such as Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. (Photo Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

George Clooney’s first directorial effort since 2008’s “Leatherheads” abandons the screwball comedy that derailed that film and returns to the socially conscious sparring of 2005’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.” “The Ides of March” is not only a clear evolution of Clooney’s directorial style, but an impressive piece of intelligent, adult cinema; political intrigue of the highest degree.

Clooney makes a splash in front of the camera as well, co-starring as presidential candidate Mike Morris, whose campaign is headed up by Stephen (Ryan Gosling) and Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman). His opponent for the Democratic nomination for president barely registers in the film, represented instead by campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). When Tom calls a meeting with Stephen under mysterious circumstances, Stephen’s professional and personal career begin to implode, and most of the film deals with Stephen scrambling to stay afloat in a vicious game where everyone knows more than him.

The cast Clooney has assembled couldn’t have more pedigree if it tried, from acting giants Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman to fellow Oscar nominees Ryan Gosling and Marisa Tomei, not to mention former indie queen Evan Rachel Wood. Predictably, everyone’s operating at the top of their forms here. Gosling has been having a hell of a year between this, “Crazy, Stupid Love” and “Drive,” and he manages to turn in a performance filled with long interludes of nothing but Stephen thinking, trying to work out all the pieces in his head, and manages to make it equally compelling but radically different from his performance in “Drive.” When Stephen finally figures it all out, things get even more intense and Gosling easily holds his own against some of modern cinema’s heavyweights.

Evan Rachel Wood’s performance as a seductive intern is sultry yet human, and Paul Giamatti is underused but predictably great as the opposing campaign manager. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a stunning performance, perhaps his best since 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and delivers an incredible monologue about loyalty midway through the film that’s a true showstopper. Even cinematic chameleon Jeffrey Wright pops in for a few scenes, and manages to round out a slightly underwritten antagonist easily. Clooney’s character doesn’t get much to do, but he knows how to win an audience and deliver a speech, and, apart from one great, dramatic moment late in the film, that’s all he’s asked to do.

However, Clooney gets plenty of chances to show off behind the camera. Along with directing and starring, Clooney co-writes with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon. Clooney adapted Willimon’s play “Farragut North” and while his script and dialogue is a prime example of how to translate a play to screen, the film’s theatrical roots never overpower the material’s cinematic appeal. Clooney’s direction never calls attention to itself, even when finding some memorable, creative images. Clooney also bathes the film in shadows as the characters delve into increasingly shady territory, and a climactic moment in a kitchen between Gosling’s character and his own is a marvel, drawing the audience in visually before the characters rip into each other verbally.

“The Ides of March” is the best kind of film that we see during Oscar season — a genuinely involving, mature drama that gives its audience plenty to chew on, and allows us to see Hollywood’s best actors doing what they do best. The film is packed with powerhouse performances and is easily Clooney’s best work behind the camera to date. Expect to be hearing a lot about this smart, memorable film going forward.

(Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

“Moneyball” isn’t director Bennett Miller’s first foray into fact-based drama — Bennett’s last film was Oscar winner “Capote” back in 2005. While “Capote” managed to tell a compelling story and featured an all-time great performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Moneyball” suffers from its true-to-life basis, dwelling on the facts of Billy Beane’s attempt to revolutionize baseball too much to tell an entertaining story.

Brad Pitt stars as Beane, a failed professional baseball player turned general manager for the Oakland A’s. As his star players keep getting yanked from under him because of the A’s disadvantaged financial situation, Beane turns to a theory pioneered by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), which uses statistics to construct a hypothetical “perfect team,” much to the chagrin of other A’s officials, especially field manager Art (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
 
Pitt has been getting some considerable Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Beane, and the attention isn’t totally unwarranted. Pitt brings a tremendous nervous energy to Beane’s mannerisms that makes him undeniably fun to watch. While letting Hill and Pitt bounce off each other for extended periods of time may not sound like the best idea on paper, the two have a certain chemistry that makes for some very big laughs and their scenes are among the film’s highlights.

Unfortunately, almost everything else about the film is simply different levels of underwhelming. Many of the supporting characters are underused, especially Hoffman’s manager, who seems to exist solely to make Billy throw things and Chris Pratt as a down-on-his-luck player given a second chance. Hoffman and Pratt are both strong actors, but the script never gives them anything to do and as such, they never get a chance to impress in any significant manner.
 
The rest of the film requires a more-than-cursory knowledge of baseball, since the narrative of “Moneyball” strongly relies on lots and lots of facts related to the game, all of them presented with little to no context. This makes for a somewhat confusing experience for anyone without a relatively thorough knowledge of the game and a frustrating one when we see Beane’s strategy failing with little explanation. There’s no doubt that screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian know how to tell a better story than this and their dialogue never dips below serviceable, but the script is all facts and no flavor.
 
Everyone involved in “Moneyball” obviously tries to form a shapeless mass of baseball-related factoids into a compelling story and even succeeds in a few scenes. When the film actually cuts to the baseball field, both in moments of triumph and defeat, things become legitimately compelling, but these moments are few and far between — brief signs of life in what’s mostly a bland regurgitation of baseball statistics. While Pitt and Hill do their best to keep the film interesting, “Moneyball” ultimately isn’t up to the challenge of making its story relatable.

Printed on Friday, September 23, 2011 as: "Technicalities ruin potential of star-studded baseball film."