What Matters? – The Death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and The Ripple Effect

“Acting is so difficult for me that, unless the work is of a certain stature in my mind, unless I reach the expectations I have of myself, I’m unhappy. Then it’s a miserable existence. I’m putting a piece of myself out there. If it doesn’t do anything, I feel so ashamed. I’m afraid I’ll be the kind of actor who thought he would make a difference and didn’t. Right now, though, I feel like I made a little bit of difference.” (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, imdb.com)

Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

I know he’s a celebrity. I know I don’t know him. He might’ve been a good person, or perhaps not. With his death, comes a great sadness, though. The writer and director in me had him on the short list of brilliant actors I dreamed of working with. The film lover in me wishes he’d be around to win just a few more awards — to play the lead in just a few more films. The horrid shock of knowing we’ll never get to see him in a new film ever is devastating. My only consolation is the realization that there are so many of his films I’ve only “meant” to see, and through them he gets a few new roles — at least for a little while.

After several hours of reflection behind me, I realize why this death affects me more than other celebrity deaths have. Yes, he was an amazing actor — the type that makes you see a movie just because he’s in it, but that’s not it. This death brings tears to my eyes, because he mattered to me. He mattered because in my world Capote mattered. It changed me, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman was Truman Capote, and that mattered.

As I pondered why Capote, of all random films, means something to me, I started thinking about other films (not necessarily my favorites) that truly effected me in some way. Why did they stand out amongst so many? When I started thinking about it, it was actually easy to focus on a select few. This list, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is inspired by you:

———————————-

Beginning in the summer of 2004, I worked the overnight shift at a TV station during the week. I watched a lot of movies during that time, often early in the morning, or in the middle of the night on weekends when the world was asleep. My mind shifted and became addled by a reverse sleep cycle, and I only remember that I might have maybe watched this or that during that time. There’s one film I remember vividly, though.

Before Sunrise

As Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke bantered about in Before Sunrise,  I remember thinking that never before had I seen a film that had so much dialogue. How had this one pulled it off with such great success? They beat into our brains in film school that films should show not tell, that less is more when it comes to dialogue. Yet, here was a film that broke those rules. Nothing really happened, and it was beautiful. It was fascinating. The conversation was brilliant. The characters were real. I loved it. I love it. It has, had, and continues to impact and inspire me. Thank you Richard Linklater. Thank you Julie Delpy. Thank you Ethan Hawke.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Before college I hadn’t been exposed to many silent films. When I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it enthralled me. The peculiar scenery, the bizarre characterizations — the horror of it all. This film made me love silent films. It made me see that the world didn’t need to look like the world, to feel like the world. It taught me what a somnambulist is for goodness sakes! Caligari has inspired Hitchcock and Tim Burton, and any number of others. I didn’t know any of this when I first saw it, though. All I knew is it was amazing!

Walk the Line

In addition to leading me onto the straight and narrow path of being smitten with the music of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, simply put, made me believe in love again. It had one thing that separated it from every other love story I’d ever seen or read — one detail that made it stand out. It was  true.

Harry Potter

Okay, this is a weird one in comparison to the others. Hear me out, though. Before seeing  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone I hadn’t read any of the books. After seeing it, I immediately read every single one that was out at the time. I bought the remaining novels on their opening days year-after-year. I won a 2nd place Colorado Broadcaster’s Association award for a news piece I did on the final book release. This fantasy world matters to me. Watching Harry Potter marked the first time since L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, that I was fully transported into another world — it brought magic to my life. I wanted to be in those books. I wanted that fantasy to be real. Because of all that followed, this first film mattered.

The Sea Inside

The Sea Inside is about assisted suicide. It should be a depressing film, but it’s not. I left the film feeling more alive. It was an emotional journey, and of course I cried, but it was not sad. I gained a new love for Spanish cinema after seeing this film. My heart grew fond of Javier Bardem long before he joined forces with The Coen Brothers or James Bond. Mostly, though, I was moved in a way I’d never expected or known before. This one sat with me for a long time.

The Sensation of Sight

David Strathairn starred in Good Night and Good Luck. In any other year he would have had-an Oscar winning performance. This isn’t about that film, though. About a year later, I went to see a film starring Strathairn at the Starz Denver Film Festival called The Sensation of Sight. I had no idea David would be there, but when the Q&A began, there he was  with Ian Somerhalder from Lost. What? My heart began to race — literally. Standing in this tiny theatre in Denver, and it truly was a tiny theatre, was an actor I had grown to love. Those days when I sat in the audience at Starz were some of the days I felt most alive during my stint working at a news station. I sat there film after film, and I knew I belonged. It was one of the only places that made me feel that way. Seeing David Strathairn there in my world, close enough that I actually could have talked to him had I thought of something to say, gave me more hope than I even realized at the time.

This brings us back around to Capote, which came out the same year as Goodnight and Good Luck. Any other year, Strathairn may have won the Oscar, or perhaps it would’ve been Heath Ledger. It was neither. It was… who?

Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Capote

This was, as it happens, the second year I’d had an Oscar party — the second year in which I made a grand effort to see as many films as possible. This was the year, I opened my mind to movies I wouldn’t normally see. It was one of the most memorable years in film for me to date. Perhaps, it was the impact of the films that year, or maybe it was just that I’d spent so much time in theatres alone in awe. It’s hard to say. In any case, I didn’t know much about Truman Capote. I’d never read In Cold Blood. I still haven’t. The film Capote blew me away, though. I’m sure I’d seen shocking endings before, but something about Hoffman’s performance — something about the way in which that character behaved — something about the cold, heartless ending — it mattered. It shocked me, and it changed the way I looked at film. It changed the way I measured an amazing performance.

You see, Phillip Seymour Hoffman will forever be Capote to me. He will always matter. Mr. Hoffman sir, you did make a difference. You did the only thing you ever set out to do. There is no shame in the roles you played, or the lives you changed. You’ve created a great ripple.

Goodnight Mr. Hoffman, and good luck.

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So an Insurance Guy Walks into a Femme Fatale’s House: Double Indemnity, in review

“Who’d you think I was anyway? The guy that walks into a good-looking dame’s front parlor and says, “Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands… you got one that’s been around too long?
One you’d like to turn into a little hard cash?” – Walter Neff –

doubleIndemnityGrocery

In Summary:

Double Indemnity is a film noir about an insurance man, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who falls mistakenly in love with the beautiful Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while trying to sell her insurance. The two conspire to remove Phyllis’ ill-tempered husband from the picture, so they can be together. In what is almost the perfect murder and insurance fraud scheme, director Billy Wilder places Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) into the position of the voice of reason. The question is, will Keyes figure out what Walter and Phyllis have done before it’s too late.

Why I watched this one:
As it turns out, I’ve watched very few film noir pieces. I’m not sure why. I wanted and needed to watch more, and Double Indemnity has long been on my list.  Also, I enjoy Fred MacMurray, and was interested to see his performance in this particular film.

So what is a noir? Variety describes the genre this way:

“Between the Great Depression and the start of the
Cold War, Hollywood went noir, reflecting the worldly, weary, wised-up under
current of mid-century America. In classics such as Laura, Sweet Smell of
Success, and Double Indemnity, where the shadows of L.A. and New York
pulse with
killers, corpses, and perilous romance, failure is not only a logical option but a smart-talking seduction.” – Vanity Fair March 2007 –

Who isn’t drawn in by the idea that the shadows of L.A. and New York “pulse” with peril. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. Honestly, though, if I wasn’t reading this quote as a description of film noir, I might mistake it for that of a mobster movie — Dick Tracy, The Godfather, The Sopranos, and The Departed immediately pop to mind.  Filmnoir.net takes a different approach when describing the film noir.

“The great films noir had both popular appeal and artistic merit because their themes address the human condition and the frailty of normal lives, which at any moment can be plunged into the chasm of chaos,
t
hrough chance or individual action – innocent or otherwise.
How moral ambivalence, lust, love and greed can destroy lives was
explored outside the closed romantic realism of mainstream movies.”

I was always taught to believe they required this formula:

1. A femme fatale (always a femme fatale) — which means never trust the women in these films. Never.
2. Someone with some loose morals
3. A detective, or a crime
4. High contrast cinematography and lighting (big shadows, light vs. dark, black blacks and white whites — you get it)

Double Indemnity meets all of these film noir requirements,  so no wonder it’s marked as one of the greats. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1945, including Best Picture, but lost to the Bing Crosby film Going My Way.

My Review & Verdict — in Claps:

“Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong.
It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me.
I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
– Water Neff –

Image
I enjoyed this film. Why?

Every character with the exception of Barton Keyes was pretty much a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, or a murderer. Of course, by “every character” I simply mean those played by MacMurray and Stanwyck. Perhaps, it was that bit of redemption at the end as Walter Neff comes clean about his crime that makes me like it. Perhaps, it was the intrigue throughout as I wondered how they’d commit their murder, and if dear Phyllis Dietrichson was really in love with Neff or simply playing him for a fool. Even though I know the woman is always deceptive in the noir, I always want to believe it isn’t true. I want a good guy. I want a happy ending. But then, Wilder began with the end and then had Walter tell the story from the beginning. I knew immediately there was no happy ending to be had, but I still enjoyed this film.

For the third time  Billy Wilder has graced this blog, and he’s definitely becoming one of my favorites. Once more he’s created likeable unlikable characters who represent the good and bad in all of us. This time he did it in the acceptable form of film noir. Every director could learn a thing or two about character development and an interesting plot line from Mr. Wilder.

Thus it is, that you may clap in high contrast, with big scary shadow puppet hands, for Double Indemnity.

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman –
and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”
– Water Neff –

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The Claps in Between or What I Did on My Blogging Vacation

I got a little behind with my blog… Okay, a lot behind.

I was hung up waiting for time to do the proper Western film research, then failed to review anything in between. So, in lieu of a true entry this week I offer my thoughts on several more recent films (mostly) that I watched between blogs. My next piece will either be the western analysis OR one on Double Indemnity. In any case, here are some other things to clap about (or not). I will offer no explanation.

The Dark Knight Rises – You may clap, and clap, and clap, and clap, and clap.
Super 8 – You may clap, and dig up your old film camera
The Descendents – You may clap, I did not — what a disappointment
The Artist – You may clap silently
The Philadelphia Story – You will clap, Red
Kung-Fu Hustle – You may do a kung-fu chop
Rango – You might clap
Puss in Boots – You may clap with an accent, or find a kitten to pet
The Star Wars Original Trilogy – I mean duh, clap a lot
Clerks – You may clap, and laugh, and clap
Red State – You’ll clap with trepidation, unless you’re a religious extremist, then I really can’t say what you’ll do
The Game – You may clap, after you figure out what’s going on
Drive – You may clap, but I think it was over-hyped

It’s the Wild West, There’s No Rain — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in Review

“You should have let yourself get killed a long time ago when you had the chance. See, you may be the biggest thing that ever hit this area, but you’re still two-bit outlaws. I never met a soul more affable than you, Butch, or faster than the Kid, but you’re still nothing but two-bit outlaws on the dodge. It’s over, don’t you get that? Your time is over and you’re gonna die bloody,  and all you can do is choose where.”
– Sheriff Ray Bledsoe: [to Butch and Sundance] –

In Summary:
As you might deduce from the title, this film is about the legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford). The film follows the two robbers through the latter portion of their “careers” as they terrorize one last train, get tailed by an unknown horse posse, and jump ship for Bolivia with Sundance’s girlfriend Etta (Katherine Ross). This so-called “buddy film” is ultimately more about the friendship between Butch, Sundance, and even to a certain extent Etta, then it is the great escapades in which they partook. It also touches a bit on their efforts to live life on the straight and narrow, which never really seems quite possible for the two outlaws.

The film, directed by George Roy Hill,  brought Redford and Newman together for the first time. They would re-unite in 1973 for Hill’s film, The Sting. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Song. It was nominated for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Sound. It was nominated and won a cache of other awards, including several BAFTAS, Golden Globes, and a Grammy for Burt Bacharach‘s original score. You can view the complete list here.

Why I watched this one:
This movie popped to mind, because I’d seen a little part of it once (I was pretty sure anyway)– the part where they jump off the cliff — and I never saw the rest.

Mostly, though, I wanted to see another Paul Newman film (I’ve only seen Cool Hand Luke, and his more recent appearances in Road to Perdition and Empire Falls). I didn’t enjoy Cool Hand Luke, so I was skeptical of this movie. But, I like outlaws as much as the next girl, so why not give it a watch.

I didn’t remember much about Butch Cassidy or The Sundance Kid before watching this. I still don’t know too much about their outlaw career, to be honest, since the film is dated near the end of their heyday.

In doing some research for this review, however, I found this awesome old photo of Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid, and the rest of their gang, The Wild Bunch. Interestingly enough, in the film their gang is not the Wild Bunch, but The Hole in the Wall Gang. It’s true, though, that the Wild Bunch would meet quite often at a hideout called Hole in the Wall in Johnson County, Wyoming. As it turns out, the various outlaws that met here were called The Hole in the Wall Gang. This referred to all of the individual gangs that would meet there, making it not just the one group, but several, including The Wild Bunch.


Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, is in the lower right-hand side of the photo with his hand resting on the arm of his chair. I don’t really think Paul Newman looks much like him. The Sundance Kid (Harry Alonzo Longabaugh), seated on the far left, does look a bit like Robert Redford did in the film, though. It’s said that posing for this photo was one of the greatest mistakes Butch Cassidy made, because it allowed the Pinkerton Detective Agency to track them down.

Needless to say, after doing some quick research on Butch Cassidy and his gang, its clear that the film takes some liberties with actual events, and invents others entirely. Yes, they robbed a train called the flyer, and yes a posse did follow them for a while. Yes, they did go to South America with Etta (though they originally aimed for Argentina, not Bolivia), and yes they did supposedly die in a shootout. Everything else, might be a bit embellished. You can read more of the story for yourself here on Wikipedia or on a more legitimate site of your choice.

My Review & Verdict — in Claps:
I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by this film. It intermixed just enough humor and action to make it extremely enjoyable to watch. Paul Newman was entertaining as Butch Cassidy, but Robert Redford shined as Sundance. There was something quietly clever about his character, even though Butch was supposedly the brains of their gang. The minor characters are also rather ingenious — all endearing in their own right. They include, Woodcock (who guarded the safe on the train), the bicycle salesman, News Carver (of their gang), and poor Percy Garris (who almost helps Butch and Sundance lead a lawful life). Each of them has at least one memorable one-liner, which keeps the film enjoyable and light considering we’re watching a gang of outlaws.

Stylistically, the film is a total trip too. It starts out with an awesome sepia-tone look that, to be honest, I wish had been carried throughout. Then, there’s that wonderful montage of photos as Butch, Sundance, and Etta travel towards Bolivia with still pictures of the cast intermixed with historical photos. I was hoping this was intentional, and not a montage inserted into the DVD master of the film to make up for missing footage. It was intentional.

The only part I disliked about the film, though it seems to have received critical acclaim, was the bicycle scene and use of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head. The song completely broke from the feel of the film. Why would that song be playing in the old west? It wouldn’t. The bicycle scene itself with Paul Newman and Katherine Ross, may not have bothered me had it only played out under a western-themed tune. My Darlin’ Clementine? ‘Ol Susannah? Anything!

That scene aside,  I came to an obvious decision immediately after watching this film… 

You may clap loudly for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and if you’re like Etta, you might just run off with a gang of outlaws after watching it. Okay, no… too much? Don’t do that… please.

“I’m 26, and I’m single, and a school teacher, and that’s the bottom of the pit. And the only excitement I’ve known is here with me now. I’ll go with you, and I won’t whine, and I’ll sew your socks, and I’ll stitch you when you’re wounded, and I’ll do anything you ask of me except one thing. I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind.” – Etta Place –

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What Does Spaghetti Have to do with a Western? – Fistful of Dollars, in review

“When I was young, I believed in three things: Marxism, the redemptive power of cinema, and dynamite. Now I just believe in dynamite.”
Sergio Leone, Conversations Avec Sergio Leone

In Summary
A Fistful of Dollars is not the first, but one of the most well-known of the Spaghetti Westerns. Fistful is the first in director Sergio Leone’s western trilogy featuring Clint Eastwood, culminating in one of the best known westerns, The Good the Bad and the Ugly.

In the film, a poncho-wearing stranger (Eastwood) rolls into town, wasting no time slinging his gun around at the unsuspecting, though probably deserving strangers.  He finds out that the town is run by rival families, the Baxters and the Rojos, who apparently spend most of their time shooting at one another. In a bold move, he wiggles his way into both families trust (if you can call it that). His apparent goal might be no more than playing both sides, earning a pile of cash, shooting a few men, then riding back out of town. Decide that for yourself. As the trailer to the flm so boldly announces, “A Fistful of Dollars is the first motion picture of its kind. It won’t be the last!”

A few things of note about A Fistful of Dollars, are that Clint Eastwood was not Leone’s original choice to play “the stranger,” and that it was in all likelihood a re-made version of the Kurosawa Samurai film, Yojimbo. Though Leone apparently denied the similarities between the two films for some time, a lawsuit eventually said differently, and a percentage of the profits from the film were given to Kurosawa. Incidentally, on the former point, Clint Eastwood’s role in A Fistful of Dollars is what took him from a part on the television show Rawhide to worldwide fame. Who knew that Leone’s last choice for a star would become one of the greatest actors and directors around.


Why I Watched This One

The first time I saw this movie I was a teenager, and I was accustomed to the John Wayne style westerns I’d been exposed to most of my life. I had the grand idea to watch the entire “The Man with No Name” series. I only got through A Fistful of Dollars. Seemingly cold-hearted killings, a machine gun, and a lead character who by the end of the film you still don’t really know anything about; this was not what I’d expected from a western.  As a teen, that didn’t make any sense to me.

My next exposure to the spaghetti western came while reading my film history book in college. That’s when I found out that the Eastwood series along with several other westerns of the time period were actually directed and produced in Italy, falling into the sub-genre of “Spaghetti Westerns.” The name ‘spaghetti western’ originated when in the mid-60’s several Italian (and even German and Spanish) filmmakers began making westerns. The term was originally an insult, given by foreign critics, because they believed these westerns must be inferior to the better known American westerns. Most of the films were low budget, but many were still innovative, artistic, and well-made.  Although some Italians still prefer to call the films western all’italiana (westerns Italian style), the term “Spaghetti Western,” is no longer seen as an insult.

While I found this whole spaghetti western idea interesting, it still didn’t prompt me to re-watch the films. Now, a decade or so later, I believe my taste in movies has become a bit more… refined. It was finally time to give this series another, no pun intended, shot.

My Review & Verdict – in Claps
Yes, it is violent. Yes, Clint Eastwood’s character is a bit mysterious. Was he trying to do good, or just entertaining himself by interfering with the petty squabbles of a small town? It’s really hard to say. I saw a few more sparks of character this second time around, though, that lead me to believe he was trying to do the right thing in his own peculiar way. Eastwood has some great one-liners, and that coffin-maker is hilarious, but what strikes me most about this film is the use of silence. What really distinguishes a great film, from a good film, from an okay film is some mechanism that pushes the story forward in an unusually fitting way. Here, it was Leone’s use of those silent, dramatic moments where Eastwood is just staring someone down. The silence is almost awkward it goes on so long. You’re waiting for something to happen, then when it does…BAM! It’s so worth it. Other cinematic choices, such as the extreme close-ups on the eyes of various characters, and the unforgettable music, make this a great movie. You may clap loudly for A Fistful of Dollars, just don’t laugh at the mule. Seriously, you really don’t want to laugh at the mule.

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