Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A farewell double feature for an acting treasure

On the second-to-last night of my 2014 viewing season, I watched two movies starring a man we lost in 2014.

The fact that I didn't watch them sooner may be some indication of my general interest in them, but I did ultimately come around to renting Philip Seymour Hoffman's last two features that weren't Hunger Games movies. It felt like a fitting way to (almost) close out the year.

My resistance to A Most Wanted Man was based largely on its genre. I like the cast (Rachel McAdams and Willem Defoe beyond Hoffman) and I really like the director (Anton Corbijn of Control). But I generally don't like spy thrillers, if only because I tend to find characters more interesting than labyrinthine plots of who's double-crossing whom and the stakes of each double-cross. Turns out, A Most Wanted Man is more about post-9/11 anti-terrorism intelligence than the governments spying on other governments seen in most spy movies, but since John Le Carre wrote the novel it's based on, it's a spy movie.

I didn't really care for it one way or the other, giving it three stars largely for the competence of its execution than as any indication of how it truly held my interest the whole time. It did pick up after a very slow start, which also helped keep my review in positive territory.

Hoffman? I don't love that one of his final showcases was in German-accented English. It reminded me of the essential artifice of this type of movie, since we know the characters would really just be speaking German. However, that's an unavoidable bit of suspension of disbelief, and I don't want to punish Hoffman or the movie for that. I suppose if the movie had worked for me better overall, the performance would have also connected with me more. There's no doubt it's a good performance, but those who are looking to find a summation of Hoffman's career in this performance should remember that he didn't know it was going to be one of his last roles when he shot the film. Sometimes, a movie is just a movie.

God's Pocket I knew a lot less about. Only once I started watching did I remember that it was the directing debut of Mad Men actor John Slattery. I suppose it was the title itself that sort of interested me, but in equal measure I was turned off by John Turturro, who has had a bad 2014. It's the story of lowlifes and, I guess, midlifes in a small insular town called God's Pocket, where outsiders are never fully trusted and everyone seems to be involved in the dual pursuits of low-level criminal enterprise and pickling their liquors. An extremely disagreeable twentysomething played by Caleb Landry Jones really put me off this movie from the start.

But then -- there's no spoiler alert necessary because it happens so early -- this character dies, and the movie started to click better for me after that. I started to do something I couldn't really do in A Most Wanted Man: feel for/relate to/understand the characters. I thought this town might be full of contrived shlubs, but instead they started to feel real to me. The always-great Richard Jenkins is around to contribute to that, and Christina Hendricks seemed like something other than a fantasy doll for the first time to me.

Hoffman? This is more the performance that would seem to serve as a career summation, because though Hoffman has played intelligence operatives before (see Charlie Wilson's War), he's played a lot more shlubs (see, well, almost everything else he's been in). His character is clearly a screw-up, but he makes choices in the movie that are rather heroic, despite ample evidence that he should not make such a choice under those circumstances. He's an imperfect man trying to get by, and that connected to me more.

I gave this one three stars as well, but a slightly more enthusiastic three stars than Most Wanted.

I don't need to finish with some grand overarching comment about the man, in part because I'm writing this post under rather rushed/distracted circumstances, and in part I've already written a eulogy of sorts for him (see here for that).

I do want to say, though, that I'll miss him. He was one of the greats, and I'm glad I dedicated an evening to appreciating his talents one last time.

Was it really one last time, though? No, it wasn't. I now consider myself fortunate not yet to have seen such films as Flawless, Love Liza, Owning Mahoney, Jack Goes Boating, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Pirate Radio and of course The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. 

So I still have the pleasure of more Philip Seymour Hoffman yet to come.

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