Archive for Philip Seymour Hoffman

Going Dutch

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2009 by dcairns

“Where’s your compassion?”

“Nowhere YOU can get at it!”

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The questioner is Philip Seymour Hoffman (a Jack Kirby drawing of a baby) and the answer comes from Meryl Streep (Mrs Doubtfire) in DOUBT, the Oscar-nommed drama from John Patrick Shanley. Way back around 1992 I saw half of Shanley’s JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO on TV and thought it did a very good job of capturing some of the eccentricity of classic Hollywood comedy (Luggage salesman: “May you live a thousand years.”) and it was disappointing that Shanley didn’t continue as a director thereafter.

Now he’s back with a very Oscar-worthy (read: worthy) filmed play which does make good use of his comedic skills, while progressively trundling into darker territory. It’s perfectly good, and exactly the kind of thing the Academy likes, and so do a lot of other people. While it’s been opened out from the stage version, it’s still theatrical/televisual at heart, with characters continually pausing at the door to deliver a parting shot, like Columbo. Top cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots it, but the only real gesture towards “cinema” is the frequent recourse to that old cod-expressionist standby, the Dutch tilt.

I think, in the case of DOUBT, the technique is too obtrusive, too obvious (“The world has slipped off its axis!”) and unsupported by sufficient stylistic ebullience elsewhere in the filmmaking, apart from some nicely coloured walls, so it sticks out as a lone grab at aesthetic awareness. And this is one of the problems of the technique. How and when can you use it?

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MR ARKADIN throws a wobbly.

My friend Comrade K, a sort of Saint Michael figure positioned at the gates of art, deciding which techniques should be allowed through, takes a hard line on the Dutch tilt, allowing its value in the sole case of Orson Welles. I think THE THIRD MAN gets a partial pass by association, and probably he’d allow Raoul Ruiz, since R.R. uses technical language the way a balloon artist uses latex, and who could criticise funny balloon animals? I agree that Welles’ canted angles are beautiful and striking, and his stylistic brio is so fulsome all round that they don’t even stand out as being extreme or eccentric, surrounded as they are by so much creative perversity.

But if anything I find Reed’s THIRD MAN tilts perhaps even more interesting. One distinguishing feature is that they are mostly but not all POV shots, and that they tend to come in clusters. Once one D.T. has been used, a second starts to feel very desirable, preferably going the other way to balance it. So while the first example may have a certain sore-thumb quality, the second will be easier to take, and so on. Also, in the exotic Viennese ambiance of this particular film, askew views seem almost natural, a part of the cityscape. I feel as I watch the film that Vienna must actually look like that, and so it does, if you lean your head onto one shoulder.

I confess to mixed feelings about Ophuls’ use of the D.T.s. While a certain world-out-of-balance vibe is sometimes conjured by Ophulsian slants, sometimes the effect feels more decorative, and since Ophuls pushes the decorative to an extreme, sometimes this feels like perhaps a step too far. I’m not overly bothered, mind you, it’s just an item in his stylistic arsenal that I admire a bit less than the others.

Brian DePalma’s sloping compositions in CASUALTIES OF WAR feel more like the ones in DOUBT. When Michael J. Fox reports a case of rape and murder to his superior officer, and is told not to rock the boat, DePalma capsizes the whole film with a TITANIC-type list to starboard. The meaning is crashingly obvious, but so is the whole film, a sincere yet borderline cartoonish morality play where subtlety has no place and so a moment like this is not only acceptable, but barely distinguishable from the stylistic swagger elsewhere. Good luck to him.

Who else does good Dutch?

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War of the Colossal Midgets

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2008 by dcairns

The producer of VALMONT was asked if he’d learned anything from its commercial failure, following in the wake of Stephen Frears’ DANGEROUS LIAISONS, which had successfully tackled the same book. He said yes, as a matter of fact he had learned something. “Never make a film somebody’s just made.”

The only exceptions I can think of to the rule that the first film out of the trap in a movie-race wins, are ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, which was unharmed by following on the heels of a cheaper, more sombre ROBIN HOOD (“You do know this isn’t the Kevin Costner film?” concerned staff would ask customers buying tickets for the Patrick Bergin version) and the ANTZ / A BUG’S LIFE and DEEP IMPACT / ARMAGEDDON face-offs.

And so to INFAMOUS, a fine little film by Doug McGrath, which came and went with little fuss, all its tremulous thunder stolen by CAPOTE. Apart from coming first, CAPOTE had a star of sorts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had paid his dues and was ready for Oscar appreciation. You may have heard people say that INFAMOUS is a better film, and I’d like to add my voice to that small hubbub of approval. INFAMOUS is not only livelier, funnier, more moving, more erotic and more intelligent, it is better cast.

It may have hurt McGrath’s film that people hadn’t heard of its star, but there’s no arguing he chose the right man (though I wouldn’t mind seeing Zelda Rubinstein, the little woman from POLTERGEIST, play Capote). Toby Jones, son of the unique Freddie Jones, a Shadowplay favourite, has two crucial advantages over the somewhat bear-like Hoffman. (1) Jones is a little guy, like Capote. This turns out to be more important than you’d think, allowing references to Capote’s smallness and accompanying toughness. (2) Jones has a much better script to work from. McGrath’s writing flows more smoothly than that of CAPOTE scribe Dan Futterman (this may be to do with the direction also), traversing the story in a pacy but unhurried fashion, where CAPOTE seems slow, threatening to stall altogether at times. McGrath seems bolder in his handling of artistic license, too. It’s ironic that both films take Capote to task for fictionalising reality, and both films are forced by necessity to invent their own versions of the truth. McGrath embraces this and concentrates on telling a good dramatic story.

My least favourite thing about CAPOTE, which had good acting and a strong picturesque feel for Kansan landscapes, was its attempt to create some kind of comparison between the crimes committed by the killers Capote chose to write about, and Capote’s supposed moral crime in exploiting their story. I simply can’t see any justification for making a comparison at all. Whatever Capote’s behaviour may be, it is in no way comparable to snuffing an entire family. Let’s be sensible. INFAMOUS manages to avoid milking this tempting comparison, detailing Capote’s dishonesties and betrayals without suggesting that his guilt has any equivalence to that of the cold-blooded murderers he woos.

McGrath’s brightness has other advantages too. While CAPOTE’s highlight is the author giving a public reading of In Cold Blood, which showcases Hoffman’s skill and command of our attention, but reveals the weakness of the script in comparison to Capote’s prose, INFAMOUS doesn’t quote the book at length but does provide a higher standard of wit throughout.

CAPOTE is a decent TV movie with an outstanding central performance from a superb actor who does everything possible to overcome a physical inappropriateness to the role.

INFAMOUS is a modestly conceived but very smart and interesting movie with an outstanding central performance from an equally superb actor who is able to fit the role perfectly, and I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.

And then there’s Richard Brooks’s film of IN COLD BLOOD, which is a BLOODY MASTERPIECE, and Capote’s book itself, which is even better.