Tag Archives: Almost Famous

Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

I don’t tend to say much when a celebrity dies, even if it’s someone whose work I admire. It’s always very sad, and often I feel sadness about it, even, as though a vague acquaintance of mine has passed. But when it’s someone you don’t personally know, I find it difficult to articulate exactly why a person’s death is so tragic and what their work meant. As well-intentioned as the tributes may be, they often come across as a bit hollow and repetitive when spoken by outsiders. However, I feel the need to say something about the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’m sure I don’t have much to add to the conversation, but I’d like to share a bit about what his work meant to me and to celebrate some of his many, many great performances.

For a long time now, Philip Seymour Hoffman has been one of my favourite actors. Maybe even my favourite, though I’ve never been able to narrow it down to just one. I’ve also seen him in more movies than perhaps any other actor. This is just a testament to the amazing quality of his work; when I see the name “Philip Seymour Hoffman” attached to a movie, I know that it’s a movie I probably wanted to watch. Of the 23 movies of his that I’ve seen, barely any were disappointments, and even in the few that were less than great, Hoffman made the best of what he had and still turned in a strong performance.

Though I’d seen him do comedic roles in films like Twister and Along Came Polly, Hoffman first really caught my attention in Almost Famous. Granted, I came to Almost Famous at the exact perfect time in my life (I was 15 years old, obsessed with classic rock, a young outcast with writerly ambitions and a love of Rolling Stone), so almost everything to do with that movie had a big impact on my life. But Hoffman’s performance was like this little oasis in an explosive and deliciously decadent film. In other words: he was relatable to me, where everything else in Almost Famous was a fantasy.

Playing the famously ornery rock critic Lester Bangs, Hoffman brought his small but important character in Almost Famous to life in such a fully realized way that much like the film’s protagonist, William Miller, I felt like Lester Bangs was mentoring me. And while William was the character in that movie that I wanted to BE, Lester was the one I actually needed to hear from at the time. In one of William’s several telephone conversations with Lester, Bangs says this when William admits that he has befriended the band that he’s supposed to be writing about: “They make you feel cool. And hey, I met you. You are not cool […] And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.” Lester is the thing that keeps William grounded – even when William doesn’t want to be – and he was the character who spoke to me. It’s all well and fine to be Penny Lane off gallivanting with rock stars, but eventually reality is going to hit, and Lester is the one who will talk some sense into you when that happens. And Hoffman delivered that balance of jaded snark, wisdom, and warmth to a tee.

Almost Famous is still one of my favourite Hoffman performances, but in the intervening years, I’ve seen countless other great Hoffman performances. Take his Oscar-winning turn in Capote. Transcending mere impersonation, he once again dove into the character and pulled out something wholly human. This perhaps comes across best in his scenes with Perry (played exquisitely by Clifton Collins Jr.), the murderous subject of his book whom he builds an extremely complicated relationship with.

There are also his numerous collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, the most recent of which in The Master earned Hoffman an Oscar nomination just last year. Playing Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic cult leader, Hoffman turned in some of his most ambiguous work yet. Watching him share the screen with Joaquin Phoenix feels like a master class in acting. Not to mention his small but extremely memorable turn in Punch-Drunk Love. Say it along with me, now: “SHUT UP!

Hoffman was always great at those explosive scenes. He used them sparingly, but they always cut right to the core of things. Take his performance in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which may be one of his most underrated turns. He plays a quietly scathing man full of dysfunction, and Hoffman portrays that with alarming calculation and restraint. Suddenly, though, it all comes pouring out in one unforgettable scene, which may be Hoffman’s finest onscreen moment. The scene might not work so well out of context, and it does contain some plot spoilers, but if you’ve already seen the movie, here it is to appreciate again:

I could go on and on talking about Hoffman’s many great performances, and I’m sure other people will do so in a more comprehensive and articulate way than I could. But for me, while Hoffman always gave well-rounded, wonderful performances, he was also the master of commanding a scene, when necessary. I’m generally not one to focus on individual movie scenes, but half a dozen really great ones immediately come to mind when I think of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Along with the ones posted, here are a few more that I love (though unfortunately not all of them are on YouTube).

  • Pirate Radio is hardly the shining gem on PSH’s filmography, but he brought this wonderful rapscallion vibe to his performance as a rogue radio DJ. It’s a fun performance all around, but one scene that has always really stuck with me is the scene where his character is sitting on the deck of the boat at night and reflecting on things. “These are the best days of our lives,” he says. “It’s a terrible thing to know, but I know it.” The whole scene is so delicate, and such a nice reminder of Hoffman’s natural skill.
  • Hoffman might not have a big role in Boogie Nights, but he plays a strange, sympathetic character. Watching his harmless crush on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler go horribly wrong is both sweet and heartbreaking to watch.
  • Magnolia is another great supporting turn from Hoffman. In particular, his final moments with Jason Robarts’ character are especially touching.
  • Watching Hoffman cut Ryan Gosling’s character down to size in The Ides of March was nothing short of spectacular.

I don’t really have specific scenes in mind, but Hoffman’s turns in Synedoche New York, 25th Hour, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Savages are also well worth watching if you haven’t seen them.

It’s certainly a shock to see Philip Seymour Hoffman go so soon. The loss is tragic, and his presence in movies will be missed more than I can say. However, if we can find a consolation as fans, his legacy is a great one. He made more fantastic movies in his too-short life than most will make in their entire career. His filmography is expansive and surprisingly consistent, and all of those great movies are there for future generations to discover and love. Rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman, and thank you for the countless hours of fun spent watching your work.

Top 10 Movies of the Decade

Of course, it was a daunting task to pick my favourite movies of the decade. But after re-drafting my list at least a dozen times, this is what I managed to come up with. These are the ten films that I enjoyed most from this decade.

10. Capote (2005)

For some reason, the #10 spot seemed to be the hardest to fill on this list. But Capote, which won Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, was captivating in every way. The acting (of course), the story, and the visuals are all stunning. The evolution of Capote’s character, and his relationship with the murderous subject of his next book, were astounding to watch unravel.

9. Finding Nemo (2003)

I guess this is my requisite Pixar choice. Up and Ratatouille underwhelmed me, but this colourful tale of aquatic life was undeniably joyful. The animation is hypnotic, and the characters are unforgettable. It’s both a touching story of family, and an exciting adventure tale. Throw in Ellen Degeneres’ hilarious Dory character, and you’ve got a fantastic family film.

8. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Spend thirty seconds with the foul-mouthed grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine (played by the wonderful Alan Arkin), and you’ll likely appreciate your own family a little more. But underneath the biting, dark humour of this film, there is actually an incredibly heart-warming road trip story. Steve Carrel’s suicidal scholar and Paul Dano’s voluntarily silent teen make one of the best on-screen duos I’ve ever seen.

7. Memento (2000)

Guy Pearce (one of the more underrated actors out there) plays a man who can’t make new memories in Christopher Nolan’s frenzied breakthrough film. The film amazingly manages to keep up its fast-paced momentum, despite the fact that it’s scrambled and chopped, and that scenes play out in overlapping reverse order. It’s amazingly unique, and Memento is both intelligent, and an incredibly entertaining whodunit.

6. There Will Be Blood (2007)

This film seems to be popping up on everyone’s top 10 list (often at the top spot), but that’s probably because There Will Be Blood is such a masterpiece. Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing, there are so many striking, unforgettable moments (the whole oil rig fire sequence was amazing, not to mention the final scene).

5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

There is no doubt Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the most unique films of the decade. From the quiet, realistic courtship of Joel and Clementine, to the unusually messy breakup (they decide to erase each other from their memories entirely), it’s a whimsical, gorgeous film. It feels like it’s made for this time, which is probably why so many people connected to it so intensely.

4. The Dark Knight (2008)

Honestly, do I need to say anything at all? I’ll just apologize and move on.

3. Half Nelson (2006)

Ryan amazingly subtle performance as a crack addicted teacher is the anchor of Half Nelson, but the film as a whole is entirely absorbing, and it’s a stunning debut for director Ryan Fleck. Half Nelson celebrates and laments the small moments in life that everyone experiences, as well as delving into the tragic problems of the character’s lives. The relationship between Gosling’s Dan and Shareeka Epps’ Drey is beautiful – full of sorrow, understanding, and respect.

2. Juno (2007)

Maybe it sounds stupid to say this about a fairly lightweight comedy, but Juno is a film that really spoke to me. I love that Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody created a fun, mainstream film that actually has something to say, and it features some amazing well-written characters. It’s touching and funny, and Juno is one of the only honest on-screen depictions of what it’s like to be a young woman.

1. Almost Famous (2000)

Almost Famous has a wonderful sense of joy, and it captures the feeling of being young and loving music in a way that I didn’t even know was possible. Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson (in what may be her only good performance, like, ever), Frances McDormand, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are vibrant, and the killer soundtrack (featuring the first Led Zeppelin tune to be licensed for a film) tops it all off.

Honourable Mentions:
A Beautiful Mind, The Departed, Donnie Darko, Garden State, Into the Wild, Requiem for a Dream, Signs, Snow Angels, Zodiac

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2007)

Alright. So I’m starting to get a bit sick of writing and reading about the same movies all the time – especially when we’re talking about current movies. Yes, There Will Be Blood and The Dark Knight are amazing movies. But to make things a little more interesting, I’ve decided to start reviewing less well-known movies. Here’s my review for the 2007 indie film, Wristcutters: A Love Story.

Wristcutters: A Love Story examines the idea of purgatory for those who have attempted suicide. After slashing his wrists, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in a place that is much like earth, but merely a little more bleak and depressing. In the afterlife, he meets up with a self-destructive musician, and a girl, Mikal, who claims she is there by mistake. When Zia hears that his ex-girlfriend has also killed herself, the trio goes on a road trip in hopes of finding her. When they stumble across a mystical campsite run by a thespian (Tom Waits), things in the movie really take a turn for the weirder. Will Arnett even pops up in a really bizarre (and wildly miscast) role before the film finally finds a way to come to a satisfying conclusion.

Wristcutters is a thought-provoking, interesting film, but it suffers a bit from the odd, plot-heavy second half. I feel that the human interest slant of the film’s beginning was its stronger suit. One of the best scenes of the film takes place when Zia goes to dinner at his musician friend’s house, and discovers that his friend’s mother, father, and younger brother have also “offed” themselves, and they are all now living as a (sort of) happy family in this semi-Hell. This kind of black humour runs rampant through the entire film, and many scenes are genuinely funny. The aforementioned “love story” aspect is also very cute, and helps to lighten up the slightly cumbersome second half.

Though Patrick Fugit plays a character that is similar to his work in Almost Famous, I think Fugit does a great job here. Zia is very likeable, but also a bit of a sap, and Fugit probably plays a loveable fish-out-of-water better than any other actor his age. His wry delivery suits the film’s black humour, and I have to give Fugit a lot of credit for making grim subject matter unexpectedly fun. Strong supporting performances make the absurd story seem believable, as does the beautiful cinematography. The shots of the stark, depressing “American” landscape manage to be off-putting and beautiful at the same time.

The film itself is rather contradictory, and it seems like that’s its purpose. Suicide is shown in a very vivid way (we see exactly how many of the characters wound up in purgatory), yet the whole thing seems a little bit humorous, and almost beautiful. That’s not to say that the film glorifies suicide, but it takes a stance on it that’s both light-hearted and bleak, and manages to pull it off. The storyline about cult-ish religious fanaticism has been done to death (no pun intended), so that aspect seems less fresh, despite the fact that the film is examining it from the other side of the mortality line.

Wristcutters is not a perfect film, but it has so many positive attributes that a dud character here or there (sorry, Will Arnett. You’re still awesome.) and a bit of plot trouble doesn’t hold it back too much. The film’s really unique feel, along with great performances, make Wristcutters a must-see for anyone who enjoys offbeat movies, or who is just sick of the blandness that Hollywood usually offers up.

8/10