Category Archives: Features

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.

The Music Videos of Marc Webb

I’ve been watching a few old My Chemical Romance videos on YouTube (don’t ask why), and I noticed that Marc Webb was their go-to guy for direction.

Webb, of course, directed one of my favourite movies of last year, (500) Days of Summer, and is slated to helm the new Spider-man reboot (which I’m feeling more optimistic about. Andrew Garfield! Emma Stone! Dennis Leary!). But, like a lot of contemporary directors, he got his start directing music videos. And since this all happened in the early-to-mid 2000’s, he inevitably ended up directing videos for a lot of post-grunge and “emo” bands that were popular at the time.

Being in middle school around this time, I was greatly influenced by what my peers were listening to. And I actually watched Much Music back then. So, without knowing it, I’m pretty familiar with this guy’s back catalogue. Looking at the list of videos that he’s directed, I can immediately and vividly remember the following videos (in chronological order):

And that’s not even close to half the videos that he’s done. There are a few others that I don’t remember, and a bunch that I never saw, including some with Green Day (first in 2001, and then for their 21st Century Breakdown album), Good Charlotte, Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want to Be”, Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day”, and Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe”.

This might not be a shining era in music history, but you have to admit that Webb directed videos for some pretty prominent songs of the time. And the fact that I can actually remember so many of his videos means that they’re at least somewhat interesting (either that, or I just watched them so many times that they’re permanently engrained in my memory).

In fact, I think that a few of those videos are actually quite good. My Chemical Romance’s “The Ghost of You” is probably one of the best directed videos I’ve seen in a while. And even though it’s melodramatic and over-the-top, the theatrical tone is spot on for their fanbase. Same goes for their gothed-out “Helena” video, and the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” rip-off that is “Teenagers”. I’m not surprised that the band worked with Webb so often, because it seems to me that he deserves a lot of credit for helping them to cultivate a very specific and successful image.

And videos like “Start All Over” and “Move Along” are surprisingly memorable, too. Their concepts are simple and certainly not groundbreaking, but whenever I think of those songs (which, admittedly, is not very often), the music video immediately comes to mind.

Despite working with such a wide array of artists, I’m surprised by what a unique, recognizable style Webb has. I can’t really pinpoint it, but most of those videos have a signature Marc Webb look to them. I had no idea going into (500) Days of Summer that this guy had defined my middle school years, to an extent.

Not to get too sentimental, but I think that time period was the twilight for the music video. Sure, you can find some really innovative videos online by smaller artists, but mainstream videos are largely dead, as far as I can tell. With the exception of Lady Gaga, it seems like the big artists today and their labels are barely putting any thought into music videos. Of course, it doesn’t help that television stations barely play videos anymore, but there’s still the while “viral” market for them online that they could try to tap into. I’m not saying that music videos from the mid-2000’s were great, because most of them weren’t. And maybe I’m just fond of them because that’s when I came of age. But artists like Green Day, My Chemical Romance, and Billy Talent at least attempted some kind of visual style (no, I don’t count Katy Perry’s penchant for sepia tone as a “style”).

So there’s a look at some of the highlights from Marc Webb’s video career (you can see a more complete list on his Wikipedia page here). You can also watch a few of the videos below. I’m hoping to write up some future segments on the music videos of Mark Romanek, Samuel Bayer, and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Is Young Talent Being Wasted on Superhero Movies?


I like a good superhero movie as much as the next person. I really liked the first two Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and The Dark Knight even found its way into my top 10 movies of the decade list. But I feel like we’re getting a huge overkill of suited-up action capers. Now we’re even getting superhero franchise reboots within five years of each other, and a lot of Hollywood’s most promising young stars are suiting up.

The cast of X-Men: First Class is coming together nicely. James McAvoy (Wanted, Atonement) is playing a young Professor Xavier, while Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds) will play his nemesis, Magneto. And just today, it was announced that Nicholas Hoult (A Single Man, About a Boy) will be taking on the role of Beast, while Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) is rumoured to be playing a young Cyclops. As much as I like all four actors, I feel like the X-Men movie franchise wore out its welcome a while ago. X-Men: The Last Stand (if only it had lived up to its title) was borderline awful, and last year’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine felt totally unnecessary.

The same goes for news of the Spider-Man reboot, which will star Andrew Garfield (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). As well, Chris Evans (who is no stranger to superhero movies) will be taking on Captain America, with An Education‘s Dominic Cooper joining the supporting cast.

But I suppose most actors try the mainstream at some point in their career, if they can. Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor known for his decidedly smaller film choices, is making his way to IMAX screens with his work in Inception, and his upcoming roles in thrillers Premium Rush and Looper.

To be clear, I don’t blame any young actor for taking a role in a big-budget movie. The goal is to get your name out there and increase your paycheck, and starring in films like Boy A and Rory O’Shea Was Here for the rest of your life is hardly the best way to accomplish that. But as I see more and more of my favourite young actors sign on to these superhero romps, I can’t help but feel slightly disheartened. As great of an opportunity as a big role in a summer blockbuster can be, I feel like a lot of these actors were already on the rise. And maybe I just take my movies to seriously, but I’d much rather see talented actors in roles that push them and evoke emotion from me. Even when I see Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, which is undeniably fun, I kind of just wish that I was watching him in a different movie, instead. It’s not so much that I’m blaming the actors for taking the roles (because, really, who could resist?), it’s more that I’m getting sick of superhero/comic book adaptations.

**(Side Note: Now that I think about it, perhaps the parade of highly-coifed photos at the top of this post, while quite enjoyable, doesn’t really fit with my plea to respect acting skill over marketability… But that doesn’t mean I’m going to ditch the eye candy any time soon.)

8 Biopics That Need to Be Made

The “biopic” seems to be a genre of never-ending possibilities. From politicians to serial killers to the inventor of windshield wipers, it seems like every semi-famous person with a life story worth telling gets the biopic treatment at some point. Here’s look at a few famous people yet to have their lives put to film that deserve the same attention.

Mitch Hedberg

Played by Steve Zahn

Hedberg earned a devoted following for his bizarre, stream-of-consciousness brand of humour (currently, Demitri Martin is pursuing a similar style), but had his career cut tragically short in 2005 from a drug overdose. Zahn not only physically resembles the late comedian, but may be one of the few working actors who is genuinely funny enough to do Hedberg’s material justice.

Jeff Buckley

Played by James Franco

Most famous for his seminal cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Buckley only released one proper album (1994’s Grace) before tragically drowning in 1997. His haunting voice has struck a chord with critics and fans since. Though many are against the idea of making a Buckley biopic, the resemblance between Buckley and Franco is hard to deny. Franco did James Dean justice in the 2001 made-for-TV biopic, and I think that he’d do an equally great job with this enigmatic music hero.

Patti Smith

Played by Charlotte Gainsbourg

With her own musical talent and unconventionally good looks, Gainsbourg seems like a natural choice to play legendary punk Patti Smith. As well as proving her acting chops in I’m Not There and her fearlessness in Antichrist (or so I’ve heard – I’m far too weak-stomached to watch it), Gainsbourg exudes a natural cool that’s essential to pull off Smith’s persona. Maybe it’s something to do with being French?

Nick Drake

Played by Ben Whishaw

The diminutive Whishaw may be a bit short to play Drake (who is said to have been over six feet tall), but Whishaw has the alluring mystery needed to take on this enigmatic folk hero. During his career in the late 1960’s, Drake was a relatively obscure figure, but has since had a resurgence in popularity, long after his death in 1974. Whishaw (I’m Not There, Bright Star) has the kind of “old soul” aura about him that would fit with Drake’s music and mystery.

Jimi Hendrix

Played by Anthony Mackie

Mackie proved his acting chops in last year’s Oscar Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, and he seems like a natural choice to take on this legendary musician. With many of his contemporaries receiving the Hollywood treatment, it seems likely that Jimi’s time will come soon.

Kurt Cobain

Played by Joe Anderson

Whisperings of a Cobain biopic have given bloggers something to speculate about for a couple of years now. Ryan Gosling, James McAvoy, Ewan McGregor (who would’ve been a good choice…ten years ago), and Robert Pattinson (don’t worry, that one apparently isn’t true) have all had their names tossed around, but to me, Anderson seems like the obvious choice. The resemblance is uncanny, and on top of that, he’s the right age, and he proved that he has the vocal chops as Max in 2007’s Across the Universe.

Elliott Smith

Played by Paul Dano

Revered for his hushed, tuneful music, Elliott Smith’s legacy has only grown since his tragic death in 2003. Casting a biopic for this complicated figure would be tricky, but Paul Dano is one name that seems to fit. Thanks to films like Little Miss Sunshine and Gigantic, Dano has quickly become heavily associated with quirky indie films (sometimes to the point of type casting), and his offbeat style would likely suit a Smith biopic well.

Rob Sheffield

Played by Eddie Redmayne

Rock critic Sheffield’s memoir, Love is a Mixtape, chronicles his early adulthood, and the short time that he spent with his wife before her sudden, untimely death. The story could make a great movie, and Redmayne (a recent Tony winner for Reds) not only looks like Sheffield, but has a soulfulness that would serve the story well.

Spike Jonze: A Closer Look

It’s time to get excited, because the release of the highly anticipated Where the Wild Things Are is just around the corner. As if the captivating trailer and heart-warming childhood nostalgia weren’t enough to get me there, it’s directed by one of my absolute favourite directors, Spike Jonze. For someone who’s only previously directed two full-length films, Jonze has quite an impressive body of work. One could not make a proper list of groundbreaking music videos without multiple Jonze entries, if you ask me. He’s also behind some of the few truly inventive TV commercials out there, and he gave the amazing Charlie Kaufman a forum to share his writing skills with the world.

In anticipation of Where the Wild Things Are, I’ve decided to take a look at Spike Jonze’s already impressive career. This isn’t a comprehensive guide – it’s just some of my favourite work he’s done. And hopefully I’ll be able to give a little insight into why his work has inspired me so much.

 

The Movies

Being John Malkovich

1999

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: John Cusak, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, and John Malkovich

After directing many seminal 90’s music videos (his sheer output alone in 1994 is impressive), Jonze got his first chance to try his hand at a full-length feature with Being John Malkovich. The movie has a bizarre premise about a portal that allows civilians to crawl into the mind of actor John Malkovich (playing himself in a brilliantly twisted performance). Of course, everything goes haywire. John Cusak plays a struggling puppeteer married to a considerably less glamorous Cameron Diaz. Everything about this film is inventive and a marvel to watch. Kaufman’s script is brilliant, and unexpectedly accessible (a trait that he would later dismiss with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut. But that’s a different discussion.) Jonze’s vision is so clear, and he executes the concept flawlessly. Even though the movie is kooky and unconventional, it’s told in a disarmingly honest way. Both Jonze and Kaufman earned Academy Award nominations for their work here (as did Catherine Keener, for a supporting role), and what better way to start your film career than with a Best Director nomination?

 

Adaptation.

2002

Written by: Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper

Jonze and Kaufman’s second project together was 2002’s Adaptation. Once again showing his love of blurring fiction and reality, Jonze’s film is about a writer named Charlie Kaufman, and his struggle to adapt a non-fiction book about orchids into a dynamic screenplay. Susan Orlean and her book exist in real life. Charlie Kaufman exists. His twin brother, Donald, does not. Nicholas Cage plays dual roles as Charlie and Donald, and I love how the film takes that concept of the twins all the way (I believe Donald Kaufman was the first fictional person to be nominated for an Academy Award.) Being John Malkovich is a cinematic feat, because of its inventive concept, and the world that Jonze created. But I think that I actually enjoyed Adaptation. more. It’s incredibly funny. Kaufman’s script is so sharp, and Jonze’s direction matches the tone perfectly. It’s a much more understated film (well, until it hits its wonderfully ironic third act), but it still has so much of Jonze’s signature off-kilter charm. In a film dominated by fantastic performances (all three leads were nominated for an Oscar, with Cooper winning Best Supporting Actor), it could be easy to coast on their charisma alone. But Jonze is just as much a part of this film as they are. Every scene is infused with his voice, without it dominating. His films are stylish, but the direction doesn’t take over. It’s sarcastic and biting, just like much of Jonze’s work, but still so much fun.

 

Where the Wild Things Are

2009

Written by: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers

Starring: Max Records, Catherine Keener, and voices of James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forrest Whitaker, and Paul Dano

To be honest, I don’t actually know a whole lot about this film. I’ve watched the trailer a few times, and I know basically what it’s about. But I’m trying not to build my expectations too ridiculously high. The fact that it’s co-written by Dave Eggers is reason enough to be excited. His beloved 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was inventive, and much more enjoyable than one might expect, given the potentially grim subject matter (Eggers parents both died within months of each other, and as a young adult, he was left to essentially raise his considerably younger brother). I hope that this movie won’t suffer from the hype surrounding it, and hopefully audiences and their very high expectations won’t be let down.

 

The Music Videos

I am by no means an expert on Jonze’s music video career. There are still plenty that I haven’t seen, but these are just a few of his works that have really caught my attention. I tried to give an overview of the span of his career, somewhat chronologically.

Weezer – “Buddy Holly” (1994)

This is perhaps one of Spike Jonze’s best known and most beloved works. The members of Weezer perform at choice Happy Days hangout, Arnold’s, and they’ve been seamlessly inserted into old footage from the show. They interact with Joanie and Fonzie, and flirt with the girls – pissing Ritchie Cunningham off in the process. The concept is foolproof, and Jonze executes the video perfectly to give it the right look and feel. The Weezer guys have a lot of fun hamming it up. But in a song about Buddy Holly, why isn’t Rivers wearing his own famous, Holly-esque specs?

 

Beastie Boys – “Sabotage” (1994)

Another one of Jonze’s classic videos came from 1994. This time, it’s an ode to old cop TV shows. The results are hilarious, and pretty epic, too. If any band knows how to not take themselves too seriously, it’s the Beastie Boys. They look like they’re having so much fun here. The editing is really quite amazing, and Jonze’s direction keeps the video fast-paced and fun. Some might say that Jonze’s work is respected in spite of its goofiness, but I think his light-hearted touch is exactly why he succeeds.

 

Wax – “California” (1995)

This is definitely more conceptual than Jonze’s more popular works (it’s also the image on the cover of the DVD boxed set of his work…it’s on my Christmas list.) Not a lot happens, but the whole video is weirdly captivating. The visual is so simple, but beautiful, in a stark kind of way.

 

Bjork – “It’s Oh So Quiet” (1995)

Here, Spike Jonze takes a rather inaccessible artist, and creates a video that’s lovely and fun, but still very artistic. I think the video captures the general whimsy that seems so come along with Bjork’s persona. And I’ve recently realized that no one does a seemingly impromptu dance number quite like Spike Jonze (“Praise You” music video features a similar theme). That seems a little odd, but considering that he got his start with skateboarding videos, I guess it makes sense that he is so naturally drawn to movement. Perhaps Feist’s famous “1234” video took a cue from Jonze’s work here?

 

Fatboy Slim – “Weapon of Choice” (2000)

It’s three minutes of Christopher Walken dancing and flying around. If this doesn’t make you smile, you don’t deserve to be watching a Spike Jonze video. I especially like the scene with the mirrors. And the part where he gets in the elevator, and waits until it opens to resume dancing, is classic. It’s all so well done.

 

Weezer – “Island in the Sun” (Version 2) (2002)

Alright, maybe I can forgive you for not smiling at the Christopher Walken video. Maybe. But if this doesn’t make you feel all warm insdie, then I hate to break it to you, but you have no soul. Just in case Bjork and Christopher Walken weren’t cuddly enough for you, why not take a moment to admire puppies chasing a baby chimpanzee? Even Rivers Cuomo’s occasionally curmudgeonly heart has been warmed, clearly. Oh, and I feel like an idiot saying this, considering the plethora of baby animals running around, but how adorable is Weezer’s guitar player?

 

Phantom Planet – Big Brat (2003)

Spike Jonze’s music video output has dropped off since 2000 (for obvious reasons), but clearly he hasn’t lost his touch. Phantom Planet is probably best known for their song “California” (aka the theme song to The O.C., just in case you’re over the age of 25), but this is actually a pretty cool song, and an even cooler video. It starts out as a laid-back hangout video, and then turns into a make-shift zombie production. Zombies always go over well, and it’s a blast watching them come up with creative, low-budget ways to make blood and organs.

 

 

Kanye West – “Flashing Lights” (2007)

I first saw this video just a few days ago. My first reaction was something along the lines of “…”, but as I thought about it more over the course of a few hours and days, I realised that it had a weird kind of impact on me. It’s deceptively simple, and the ending is really jarring (I know everyone hates Kanye now, because he – once again – confirmed that he was a dick during this year’s annual VMA water cooler moment, but I doubt Taylor Swift would wish that upon him). I think that this will probably hold up well over time, and be yet another entry in Jonze’s cannon of groundbreaking videos.

 

The Commercials

These are just a couple of ads that helped Jonze to receive a nomination for the “Outstanding Achievement in Commercials in 2005” award from the Directors Guild of America. They’ve definately got his signature style and humour.

Ikea Ad – Lamp

 

Gap Ad – “Pardon Our Dust”

 

Miscellaneous

The multi-talented Jonze has also worked as an actor in films like Three Kings. He was a creator and executive producer of the MTV hit show, Jackass, and helped to produce both of the movies. He was an executive producer for the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, and helped to produce Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. He also has several short films to his name, and multiple alter egos (including “Spike Jonze”. Believe it or not, that was not, in fact, his birth name. Try Adam Spiegel).

With the upcoming release of Where The Whild Things Are, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is hosting a 10-day event to honour his work. In a fascinating piece in the New York Times published last month, they note that the costume department for Wild Things was larger than the entire crew of Being John Malkovich. It’s obviously his biggest piece yet. At the age of 39, Jonze’s accomplishments are quite impressive, and it looks like Where The Wild Things Are is only going to bring him more recognition.

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