Tag Archives: philip seymour hoffman

Terri (2011)

18 Oct

John C. Reilly belongs to a school of actors who have managed to circumvent the beauty bar that Hollywood operates, breaking through the aesthetic glass ceiling by dint of their offbeat charisma. Like the great character actors that preceded them – Robert Duvall, Peter Boyle, Bruce Dern, et al. – they are called upon to play the parts the stars balk at, using their unorthodox magnetism to their favour. Alongside the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and William H. Macy, Reilly has risen through the ranks of indie cinema to become a recognisable face to drastically opposing audiences; equally at ease as a player in big-budget projects like ‘Chicago’ (2002) and ‘The Aviator’ (2004) as when portraying the demented Dr. Steve Brule in Dadaist comedy duo Tim and Eric’s ‘Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’

‘Terri’ is director Azazel Jacobs’ sixth feature, having built a formidable reputation with films like ‘The GoodTimeKid’ (2005) and ‘Momma’s Man’ (2008). Its eponymous central character is an overweight fifteen-year-old boy (Jacob Wysocki) who cares for his manic-depressive uncle (Creed Bratton) between dealing with the ridicule and isolation of high school. Terri is taken under the wing of Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), the school’s unconventional principal, who is concerned by Terri’s constant tardiness, slipping grades, refusal to participate and insistence on attending school in pyjamas. Through his weekly counselling sessions with Mr. Fitzgerald, Terri meets Chad (Bridger Zadina), a fellow troubled teen, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with an ostracised member of the popular clique, Heather (Olivia Crocicchia).

‘Terri’ is notable primarily for Wysocki’s central performance, which ranks amongst the best of the year; all the more startling for coming out of nowhere. Wysocki exhibits uncommon sensitivity and acuity in his depiction of Terri, laying himself bare as a young man who is painfully attuned to his emotions, lacking that crucial layer of skin required to endure the daily battle, cripplingly self-aware in the face of his tormentors. The sadness and resignation etched on his face, his posture slumped and defeated, Wysocki conveys the full extent of his character’s inner torment. Though his choices will obviously be limited by his appearance, Wysocki has all the attributes to carve out a niche for himself in the indies.

The exchanges between Wysocki and Reilly are the film’s highlight; like Officer Jim Kurring in ‘Magnolia’ (1999), Fitzgerald struggles to exude an air of authority in light of his discovery that ‘life is a mess’. The antithesis of Sean Maguire in ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997), Fitzgerald is not an inspiring figure; he doesn’t possess the key to unlocking Terri’s potential; he can’t make everything better; his advice is often ill-conceived; he can see what lies ahead for Terri, but knows he is powerless to prevent it. Zadina ably taps into the fragility and insecurity that drives the unhinged Chad, and though her character is amongst the least defined and rewarding, Crocicchia convincingly delineates Heather’s fall from grace. Elsewhere, Tim and Eric’s own Tim Heidecker makes a single-scene appearance as a snide, sadistic gym teacher; and stand-up Eddie Pepitone is afforded the opportunity to briefly showcase his poetically acerbic brand of comedy.

Mandy Hoffman’s saturnine score is affecting without providing emotional signposts, as is so often the case with film music; Julia Shirar’s sound design adroitly elevates ambient noise to great effect, and the nebulous soft focus articulates Terri’s absorption. Jacobs’ camera replicates Terri’s languorous gait, limiting itself to gentle pans and zooms, frequently hanging back as if embarrassed by what it is capturing. While there are comic elements to ‘Terri’, its humour is such that those looking for belly laughs will be left wanting; if, however, you enjoy a well-observed, perfectly paced and deftly performed study of the marginalized, then ‘Terri’ will satisfy. Patrick Dewitt’s screenplay skews the mawkishness that holds sway over the classroom drama, breathing new life into its tired conventions with its echoes of ‘Kes’ (1969). Though it flags somewhat in the final third, ‘Terri’ is a commendable effort from Jacobs; positing that we are all buffeted by the capricious tides of approval, that we never stop being scared children.

 

Director Azazel Jacobs on the set of 'Terri'.

  

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Hesher (2010)

3 Oct

As Hollywood is generally chary of admitting the genuinely ugly into its ranks, the ability of its stars to ‘ugly up’ is a much cherished one. The paradox of fame is that the adulation brings with it a nagging urge to be viewed as a ‘serious artist’, a quest for authenticity and legitimacy that inevitably leads to a brief holiday from the glamorous trappings. And it often reaps dividends: Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman all picked up Oscars for their ‘bravery’, resorting to unflattering prosthesis in Kidman’s case. Action alpha males Sylvester Stallone and Vin Diesel tried this tactic with less success in ‘Copland’ (1997) and ‘Find Me Guilty’ (2006); Sly developing an impressive gut and Diesel donning a conspicuous toupee for nought. Ironically, Natalie Portman goes the other way in ‘Hesher’, forsaking the high-camp paranoia that earned her the plaudits in ‘Black Swan’ (2010).

T.J. (Devin Brochu) and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), are struggling to come to terms with the death of their mother and wife (Monica Staggs). Paul is crippled by his grief, living in a pharmaceutical fog, meaning that T.J. is being raised by his ailing Grandmother (Piper Laurie). On one of his many lonely bike rides through the neighbourhood, T.J. encounters Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a pyromaniac misanthrope squatting in a derelict house. T.J. encounters Hesher on multiple occasions over the next few days as he tries to evade the attentions of the school bully, Dustin (Brandon Hill), and obsesses over Nicole (Natalie Portman), a decorous grocery store clerk who saves him from a beating at the hands of Dustin. Hesher slowly insinuates himself into T.J’s family life, providing some salutary life lessons in his brutally candid manner.

Spencer Susser’s debut feature channels the spirit of ‘Gummo’ (1997) and ‘Slacker’ (1991) in its blunt evocation of fringe culture, veering away from the whimsical explorations of suburban malaise that have deluged indie cinema – it hardly bears repeating that suburbia is not what it seems, and the awkward formality of the family meal is as trite now as it was in ‘American Beauty’ (1999). There is not a single moment when Susser’s wish to illustrate his abilities with a particular technique or stylistic flourish detracts from the naturalism; a trap so many young directors fall into. The screenplay – written by Susser and ‘Animal Kingdom’ creator David Michod – abandons the easy course in favour of a more nuanced, rewarding tack: Hesher could so easily have been a stoner caricature, but the character is imbued with such venom and menace as to negate any suggestion of that. Metallica’s music punctures the silence that holds sway over the violently banal backdrop; offering a portal into Hesher’s nihilistic mindset, the sudden bursts of ‘The Shortest Straw’ acting as his signature.

Levitt has developed from a fresh-faced sitcom star to one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, breaking away from his anodyne past and making difficult choices to amass a formidable body of work – we should relish him before he is lost to the franchise film for good. Levitt succeeds in delineating the character’s complexities, the rage and dislocation that fuels him, embodying the complexities of adolescence: the boorishness and hypersensitivity, the aggression and vulnerability. Brochu delivers the best breakthrough performance since Paul Dano in ‘L.I.E’ (2001), carrying the film with a poise that hints at a very bright future; while screen veteran Laurie is quietly devastating as the befuddled mater of her damaged clan. Wilson is mercifully lacking in affectation; while he can’t match Philip Seymour Hoffman when playing a wounded, ineffectual lump of a man, he exhibits laudable restraint. Portman proves to be the sole disappointment; she dons oversized glasses and frumpy clothes, but is never able to overcome her fame. She is never anything other than Natalie Portman, and as such her character’s battle between self-perception and reality carries little weight: a common problem for those striving to balance their public profile with creative contentment.

‘Hesher’ offers us a Generation X fable: Hesher is a harbinger of T.J’s impending adulthood; a spectre of chaos; a spirit of mischief. There is a strange sort of heroism to Hesher’s stance; he knows all the shortcuts within his circumscribed realm, exuding a Zen-like calm as he unleashes carnage upon a world he despises; grasping its harsh logic and taking it as his credo. But Hesher doesn’t heal the family’s wounds and enrich their lives, which would no doubt have been the case if this were a mainstream take on guardian angel lore. Refreshingly devoid of sentiment or irony, ‘Hesher’ plays it straight; which is not to say there isn’t humour, it just isn’t allowed to consume the film’s serious core and undermine its intent. ‘Hesher’ offers a vibrant, visceral alternative to the slew of identikit indie films being churned out by the Sundance factory system.

 

Portman: shy, retiring wallflower

 

Jack Goes Boating (2010)

25 Apr

Philip Seymour Hoffman has largely been able to resist the lure of the money that is thrown at Oscar winners in the wake of attaining the industry’s highest accolade. While most other recipients pick up lucrative endorsements and take substandard roles that trade on their status, Hoffman has continued to make interesting theatrical and cinematic work since ‘Capote’ (2005) turned him into the most unlikely, and one suspects reluctant, of A-listers. Sure, he appeared in ‘Mission: Impossible III’ (2006) and ‘The Boat That Rocked’ (2009), but thankfully those have been anomalies in a post-Oscar run that has earned him two further nods from the Academy.

Based on Robert Glaudini’s play, Hoffman stars and directs in this tale of Jack (Hoffman), a solitary reggae enthusiast who works as a limo driver for his uncle, Frank (Richard Petrocelli). Feeling sorry for his plight, Jack’s friend and work colleague, Clyde (John Ortiz), sets him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), an equally ill-at-ease work colleague of Clyde’s wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). While Jack and Connie struggle to overcome their social awkwardness, Clyde and Lucy’s marriage is beginning to crumble, with Jack caught in the middle. In an attempt to impress Connie, Jack takes cookery lessons and learns to swim in order to take Connie boating in the summer.

Hoffman clearly paid close attention and learned some valuable lessons while working with some of modern cinema’s visionaries, as his directorial debuts exhibits the same keen eye for pace and framing as the Coens, Sidney Lumet and Paul Thomas Anderson. The camerawork is dynamic without sliding into ostentation, while music both diegetic and non-diegetic is used to heighten the emotional impact of several key scenes. The film’s gentle, reflective progression mirrors the tentative development of Jack and Connie’s relationship; Mott Hupfel’s cinematography adding warmth and texture to the wintery setting in much the same way it did in ‘The Savages’ (2007).

Like ‘The Savages’, ‘Jack Goes Boating’ is steered by two captivating lead performances. Hoffman portrays a monosyllabic character that would have blended into the scenery in lesser hands, using an array of physical pointers – from his persistent nervous cough to his half-hearted adoption of a ‘Rasta’ look – to elucidate Jack’s nature. Jack is the latest in a long line of psychologically complex roles that have earned Hoffman the title of ‘Greatest Actor of his Generation’. Connie is an inherently eccentric character that Ryan’s charm prevents from being ‘kooky’: a designation which demands that actresses who fail to conform to accepted standards of beauty revert to ditzy theatrics. Ortiz and Vega reprise their roles in the play, portraying Jack and Connie’s support system with an aplomb borne of an exhaustive familiarity with and deep fondness for the characters. Ortiz and Hoffman’s interplay provides a refreshing change from the dynamic of most onscreen male friendships, openly expressing their feelings and providing emotional support for each other through their hardships.

‘Jacks Goes Boating’ is a romantic comedy with a grip on reality; a touching study of people struggling to find a place where they fit; a beautiful paean to shyness, and a moving essay on maladjustment. It features moments of Solondz-esque humour that elicit uneasy laughs, as well as showing the heart-warming landmarks of Jack and Connie’s budding love. The film dispenses with moralizing and pseudo-inspirational schmaltz to deliver its message: in a cutthroat world where sensitivity is an impediment, we must overcome the tiny obstacles that seem insurmountable in our heads and prevent us all from achieving so much, as these everyday triumphs are what define us in the end.

The much-vaunted nudity proved to be a letdown.