March 6th, 2014

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of this generation’s greatest actors. It’s a shame he died so young because the world has been robbed of a dynamite performer. Today, we honor Philip Seymour Hoffman with reviews for three of his films.

First up is…

MONTANA (1998) **

Remember that brief period of time in the late ‘90s when every indie movie was a Tarantino knockoff crime comedy with a hitman as its protagonist? Montana is one of those movies. But the protagonist in this one is a hitWOMAN, so it’s totally different.

Kyra Sedgwick plays said hitwoman. She works for kingpin Robbie Coltrane, along with her partner Stanley Tucci. When Coltrane’s girlfriend (Robin Tunney) runs off, he sends Sedgwick and Tucci to retrieve her. He also makes them take his fuck-up son (Ethan Embry) with them, much to their displeasure. Things get complicated though when the girlfriend offs Coltrane’s son.

Montana goes through the motions of the neo-noir ‘90s comedy/dramas, but it never really engages you. There are some moments where it threatens to come to life, although these moments are more of the exception than the rule. And like many of these kinds of movies, Montana features an accomplished cast stuck performing material that is beneath them.

Sedgwick seems to be doing a dry run for her Closer character and Coltrane is doing yet another variation on his underworld heavy shtick. Tucci fares the best (he’s pretty much incapable of giving a bad performance), but he’s clearly slumming here. And John Ritter has some good moments as a self-help guru-turned-kingpin too.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Coltrane’s crooked accountant. It’s the same sort of role he got typecast in early on in his career. He played similar slimy WASP-y characters in Scent of a Woman and The Big Lebowski. Hoffman doesn’t particularly excel here, but then again, he wasn’t given much to work with. He does get a pretty cool death scene though.

AKA: Nothing Personal. AKA: Killer Games.

Next we have…

FLAWLESS (1999) ***

Robert De Niro stars as a conservative, homophobic policeman who suffers a debilitating stroke. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a flamboyant female impersonator who lives across the hall. De Niro becomes a shut-in and won’t leave the apartment to go to physical therapy, so Hoffman offers to give him singing lessons to help rehabilitate his speech. At first, they are at each other’s throats, but eventually they grow to mutually respect each other.

Directed by Joel Schumacher (shortly after Batman and Robin), Flawless is a winning serio-comedy featuring two acting legends giving some terrific performances. The scenes of De Niro struggling with his disability are downright depressing. He’s partially paralyzed and can’t even open his pill bottle. When he sits alone with a loaded gun pointing to his head, you can’t help but feel for him. Hoffman is equally fine. He refuses to make his character a caricature. Instead, he creates a fully three dimensional character you care about.

Flawless is far from flawless, however. There’s a subplot about some crooks looking for missing money in the apartment building that often threatens to completely derail an otherwise engaging movie. This subplot is especially incongruous during the finale when things turn into an action movie briefly. But because the writing is so sharp and the performances are so good, it’s easy to overlook this clunky plot device.

Hoffman gets all the best lines like, “Can’t lives on Won’t Street!” and “I’m not Brother Theresa!”

And our final Hoffman flick is…

CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (2007) ***

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a hard-drinking Congressman from Texas. While sitting in a hot tub full of strippers, he gets the idea to aid Afghanistan in fighting the Russians. The problem is, if America publicly helps the Afghanis, it would be an act of war towards the Russians. So Wilson gets help from a wealthy socialite (Julia Roberts) and a hotheaded spy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and together they stage a covert war.

Directed by Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson’s War could’ve easily been a stuffy, boring behind the scene political drama. But thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s tight script, it never feels that way. And Nichols’ direction is fairly lively as well, so things never bog down. And while the film never knocks your socks off or anything, it is still consistently enjoyable throughout.

Nichols doesn’t beat you over the head with a message either, which I appreciated. Instead, he ends things with a sad scene where Wilson tries to raise a million dollars to rebuild a school in Afghanistan and is laughed out of the room. Earlier in the film, he easily raised half a billion dollars to fight a war, but when it comes time to build a school, no one lifts a finger. It’s just a small little scene, but it says a lot.

Hanks delivers a great performance as the freewheeling Wilson. He makes Wilson a likeable character, not only because he has a team of hot, buxom staffers, but because he’s extremely charismatic. And the way he conducts his private little war is fun. Because he’s under suspicion for cocaine use, no one suspects he’s trying to secretly win the Cold War nearly singlehandedly.

Roberts isn’t bad either as the bitchy rich benefactor. And Hoffman is great as Wilson’s disheveled partner in the crime. Hoffman and Hanks are awesome together, and it’s a shame they didn’t get to act alongside each other more often.

Next week’s Legend: Alec Baldwin!

THE APPARITION (2012) **

Ashley Greene and her boyfriend move into a luxurious house in the desert. Pretty soon, doors start opening all by themselves, furniture moves around, and black mold starts covering the floors and walls. She thinks the place is haunted, but he tells her that there’s actually a spirit haunting him; one they might not be able to escape.

The Apparition is a bad PG-13 horror film, but one that I had a sliver of fun with. My wife shares my love of bloody, gory horror films and always asks me why I watch these PG-13 flicks. Call it a weakness I guess.

I mean, there’s this one scene that has to be some sort of classic. Ashley Greene is sound asleep in her bed when the ghost pulls the sheet over her head; vacuum seals it, and tries to suffocate her. That’s right folks; it tries to Dutch Oven her to death! I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried.

The movie really needed about three more of these moments to be worth a damn though. The bullshit ghost chasing scenes are pretty annoying. And some of their camcorder footage is repeated, to pad out the running time (which, if you minus the credits, is a mercifully short 72 minutes).

On the plus side, Ashley Greene is really hot and spends a lot of the movie in her underwear. (She even takes a PG-13 shower too.) So that makes some of the paranormal activity crap somewhat tolerable.

I think the movie really lost an opportunity though. When Greene’s boyfriend tells her about his past, he says, “I was experimenting in college with the supernatural”. She should’ve replied, “Everyone experiments in college!” and been more understanding about the whole thing.

THE MISTRESS CLUB (2000) ** ½

Shauna O’Brien catches her husband cheating on her and runs to her girlfriends for comfort. They tell her that their husbands have cheated on them too, but they can use that against them to get what they want (lavish gifts, huge alimony checks, etc.). Meanwhile, they go out and bang younger guys and encourage Shauna to do the same.

Directed by Sybil Richards, The Mistress Club sorta plays like a Skinamax version of The First Wives’ Club. It’s not great by any stretch of the imagination, but it makes for a breezy watch. That is to say, the sex scenes are plentiful and there’s just enough plot to keep things afloat until the next sex scene.

In fact, there are nine Guy on Girl scenes throughout the film’s 73 minute running time. That works out to be a sex scene every 8 minutes, which is a pretty good average. And if you count the three Dressing scenes of the babes getting in and out of their clothing, it bumps the average up even more. But before you start getting excited over those totals, you should be aware that a lot of the sex scenes end abruptly or seem abbreviated (which is why this is getting a ** ½ rating instead of a ***).

O’Brien is one of my favorite Skinamax actresses. She has a great seduction scene where she dresses up in black leather and a cool bit where she seduces the cable guy. Her sexiness definitely elevates The Mistress Club from being just run of the mill late night cable entertainment.

AKA: Lover’s Club.

THE BREASTFORD WIVES (2007) ** ½

Frankie Cullen and Glori-Anne Gilbert move to the small town of Breastford and immediately have sex. Pretty soon, they’re having sex with all the big-chested women in town. They eventually learn that the women are all sex-crazed robots under the control of the mayor.

The Breastford Wives is of course, director Jim Wynorski’s Skinamax version of The Stepford Wives. It’s low on the usual goofy jokes that you normally associate with Wynorski’s flicks, although there is a funny scene where Cullen bangs Monique Parent in the middle of the night and tells his wife he was busy having “a midnight snack”. And while the sex scenes are plentiful, they lack the unbridled fun that his best films have; the main exception being the scene where Cullen bangs Taylor Wayne on various pieces of gym equipment (even the rowing machine!).

But while The Breastford Wives won’t be mistaken for one of Wynorski’s best, it’s nevertheless a serviceable piece of Skinamax celluloid. It’s anchored by a pretty good female cast filled with both hardcore and softcore stars such as Taylor (On the Prowl 2) Wayne, Monique Parent, and Monica Sweetheart. Throughout the film’s 79 minute running time, we get no less than twelve sex scenes (that’s a sex scene every 6 ½ minutes or so). There are seven Guy on Girl scenes, three Girl on Girl on Girl scenes (including one scene in a bubble bath where they use their boobs to wash each other’s butts, and one scene in a hot tub), one Guy on Girl on Girl on Girl scene, and one Girl on Girl on Girl on Girl scene. And just because of the sheer number of sex scenes, The Breastford Wives almost skates by on sheer silicone alone.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: STEVEN SPIELBERG

WAR HORSE (2011) ** ½

A horse is bought by a drunk whose son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) raises him and calls him “Joey”. They become friends and he trains him against all odds to be a plow horse to save his father’s farm. When World War I breaks out, Joey is sold to a charming soldier who vows to take extremely good care of Joey. Throughout the war, Joey changes hands with many owners while Albert enlists, hoping to be reconnected with his horse.

Steven Spielberg is channeling the spirit of such films like National Velvet, The Yearling, and Black Beauty with War Horse. It’s your basic Boy and His Horse story grafted onto a historical war movie. It’s unabashedly old-fashioned, which I think is one of its strengths. Only someone like Spielberg could’ve gotten away with this sort of sentimental schmaltz.

Whether or not you completely buy the sentiment, is entirely up to the viewer.

I think if I saw this movie as a teenager, I’d be way too cynical to appreciate it. If I was a little kid, I probably would’ve loved it. As an adult, I’m afraid I fall somewhere in between. But if you have an open mind and an open heart, you might enjoy it.

The early scenes cloyingly pull at your heartstrings, but run on just long enough so they don’t run out their welcome. Once Joey becomes an enlisted man, the flick turns into Saving Private Ryan’s Horse. There are a handful of decent war scenes here, although they’re just meant to be broad strokes of the overall war. The excellent performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, and Emily Watson help.

As a fan of Steven Spielberg, I had fun spotting his distinct visual style on display. I also liked the various nods to filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Victor Fleming, and John Ford as well. As a whole, I can’t say it all worked, but War Horse is a mostly satisfying middle of the road picture from Spielberg.