Tag Archives: movies

The Last Shape Shifter

Image courtesy The Weinstein Company

Image courtesy The Weinstein Company

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published Sunday, February 2, 2014) Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor whose chameleon attributes enabled him to so successfully morph into the characters he portrayed that we often forgot he was acting, was found dead early Sunday in his Greenwich Village apartment.  He was 46 years old.

Though not a household name in the sense that he occupied headlines the way Alec Baldwin or Sean Penn might, and though not chiseled with the sort of looks that brought him the brand of adoration movie fans might lavish upon leading men like Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig, Will Smith, Matt Damon or Orlando Bloom, Hoffman was instead what one would call an actor’s actor.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a rare quantity—which is to say he was the kind of actor who floats across the film radar screen maybe only a handful of times each generation.

Like John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon; The Godfather Part II) decades before him, Hoffman was unafraid to tackle the parts which required vulnerability, weakness, fear, self-doubt, even, at times, self-loathing.  And in an age in which the Hollywood movie-making formula requires cocky self-assurance and bravado from its leading male roles (how many times has Tom Cruise basically played the role of Tom Cruise?) this meant that Hoffman was a true rarity, someone willing convert the looks and the tone and the voice that one might define as non-traditional into mainstream power.  He demanded little of the camera.

Conversely, his skill was such that he could essentially reverse the dynamic, as he did with uncanny power in The Master, a film in which he plays the self-assured, charismatic Lancaster Dodd (an analog to the real-life L. Ron Hubbard if there ever was one in modern cinema), the leader of a fledgling quasi-religious self-help cult which specializes in “processing” its members to free them of collective memories and billions of years of accumulated pain and fear.  Hoffman plays opposite Joaquin Phoenix, who takes on the manic role of the dysfunctional Freddie Quell, a troubled, bipolar alcoholic with heavy baggage.  The complex waltz between the two characters is one of the most chilling—and compelling—ever forged in recent movies (a testament not only to Hoffman’s skill, but also to director Paul Thomas Anderson).

Anderson, a visual perfectionist who can said to share the cinematic DNA of Stanley Kubrick and, more recently, Terrence Malick, had worked with Hoffman before, and the young director knew he had something special.  In Anderson’s atmospheric and dazzling period piece, Boogie Nights, and in the intensely cathartic Magnolia, Philip Seymour Hoffman emerges as a crucial, pivotal character, in each case absorbing and digesting wide swaths of emotional vulnerability, pain and insecurity.

In early films, like the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski (1998) or Frank Hansen’s The Getaway (alongside Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger), Hoffman plays it for the sake of the leads, easily accepting the role of foil to the majors in key scenes.  In Red Dragon he absorbed it all: a deliciously unlikeable combination of self-centeredness, narcissism, jugular-motivation, self-importance and tabloid trash hunger as reporter Freddy Lounds.

But by the time we see him in Cold Mountain, in 2002, easily working with gravitas and presence alongside Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, we realize that this guy has rivers—even oceans—of talent pent up behind that sturdy face and poorly-shaven mug.  We realize that one day this actor might own this screen.

Then, Hoffman emerges with so much power that we lose track of who his is.  He becomes the decade’s most notable movie changeling, an actor so easily able to change color and shape and density that we forget he is an actor.  Charlie Wilson’s War and Synecdoche, New York prove that he is capable of almost anything on screen.  He plays opposite Tom Hanks with such ease that we actually spend almost as much time watching Hoffman as we do Hanks—about as stupendous a performance as one can expect.

His complete transition from an actor named Philip Hoffman into the writer Truman Capote was total and inspired (for the movie Capote, directed by Bennett Miller).  It may have been challenging work to remain in character for the role, but Hoffman made it look easy.  The result was a film of remarkable, crystalline quality.

By the time he stars opposite Meryl Streep in Doubt, Hoffman had found his way to the Pantheon, playing the role of Father Brendan Flynn with such aplomb and believability that we accept without question that he is that Catholic Priest (just as we accept Meryl Streep in her role as Sister Aloysius, the school’s domineering, disciplinarian principal, and soon Father Flynn’s arch-nemesis in their escalating battle of wills).

Watching Hoffman in films like Pirate Radio and The Ides of March was to watch an artist at work—not by stealing the scenes, nor by chewing on the scenery, but by not calling attention to himself.  In this sense, he worked at the opposite end of the spectrum from actors like Jim Carrey or Johnny Depp.

And watching Hoffman at work opposite George Clooney or Ryan Gosling (in The Ides of March), or Brad Pitt (in Moneyball) was also a way to remember that looks aren’t everything.  Sometimes gravitas and skill come from something deeper, something more challenging—the special sort of inner metal that shatters exteriors and upends convention in a looks-obsessed world.

His loss will be felt deeply in the filmgoer’s flickering world.

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The End of the Film

Image courtesy Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Films

Image courtesy Paramount Pictures/Red Granite Films

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

(Originally published January 18, 2014)  For a score plus a century, motion pictures have been shot, edited, distributed—and projected onto the big screen—using film, typically 35 millimeter.

That tradition may soon come to an end as more film production companies and studios continue their transition to fully digital formats.  In a move that promises to have historic importance, Paramount Pictures released a statement to all of its participating theaters that the recent comedy Anchorman II would be the last movie it would release on celluloid film stock.  Industry experts suggest that as Paramount goes, so goes the rest of the Hollywood majors.

Paramount, like some of the other Hollywood majors such as 20th Century Fox, Universal and Walt Disney, has been slowly converting to digital distribution for several years.  Last year several new releases were offered only in digital format to theaters, including The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Three factors are now pushing the process of transition even faster.

One is theater conversion.  Now that a vast majority of theaters, especially those who are part of the larger chains, have made the once-expensive upgrade to digital projection as an option, the studios feel they have less to fear from going fully digital.  The major studios no longer worry about missing out on revenue from those few theaters still stuck with traditional projection methods.  Unlike other technology advances (hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars, for example), this chicken and this egg have moved in tandem in their business model evolution.

AMC, for example, working closely with Sony, completed a costly three year transition of its theaters to digital at the end of 2012.  Other major theater chains in North America, the U.K., Europe and Asia accelerated their conversions to digital at the end of the aught years, and now very few of the major theater companies have venues which still project using analog film.

The second factor is cost.  Film—which was never cheap, even in the old days—is now greatly overpriced when compared to digital in cost per unit, and since fewer companies support hardware, maintenance, and supplies for film, the transition now seems unstoppable.  Many theaters have converted fully to digital, and some are now installing satellite systems for direct beaming, or high speed digital platforms for direct downloads and uploads—distribution models that may reduce the cost of acquisition of a single movie to under $100.  A traditional celluloid film could cost as much as $2500 per unit for delivery.

The third big issue is durability.  Film is fragile and subject to costly forms of instant depreciation—including damage from breaks, scratches, heat and humidity, smoke, and a wide variety of environmental factors.  Storage and maintenance of film is costly, and fraught with never-ending issues of deterioration.  Digital distribution and projection bypass these problems and incur virtually no cost, except for computer hard drives and digital projection hardware.

This means that theaters have little reason not to embrace the new business model.
Digital motion pictures are typically cached in a file called a DCP (digital cinema package), which can range in size from 100 to 340 GB.  This means that an entire movie for theatrical projection can be contained on something the same size as a few Blu-ray discs.

Furthermore, advances within the digital realm—lighting, shooting, editing, special effects—have advanced with breathtaking speed, and helping to usher in faster, more nimble ways to produce ever-more-elaborate big screen projects (and some film purists would argue that the new digital processes make producers and directors lazy, since special effects can now do the work or difficult filmmaking must cheaper).  Digital shooting and editing is also easily embraced now by the independent and smaller filmmakers who would have once—in the recent past—found the costs prohibitive.

Also contributing to the business model’s success is the fact that most Americans now watch movies through services like Netflix, through cable operators and satellite companies, or via fully digitized formats such as DVD or Blu-ray.  Conversion directly to these digital pipelines and formats is easy and relatively-cost free.

For these reasons, motion picture industry experts believe that the transition to all-digital distribution will go quickly within the next two to three years.  Paramount’s decision was, in fact, inevitable, and industry experts now believe that 20th Century Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers and others will soon follow this path.

For those nostalgic about film, there are downsides.  Some see digital distribution as the death knell for what remains of locally-owned, independent theaters, or the art house theaters which specialize in second-run or retrospective showings (examples: the San Marco Theater in Jacksonville, FL, and The Guild in Albuquerque, N.M.).  And the conversion to digital may force some of the remaining indie and smaller theater franchises—those who cannot afford to make the transition to digital projection systems—out of business.

Still, many screenwriters and directors—as well as actors—bemoan the eventual loss of film, and many have joined in a group effort to maintain film.  The preservation of tens of thousands of films now archived in the old format has become a priority for many who still view the craft of the motion picture as an essential analog and photographic art form.

Thursday Review will have more on this topic in the near future.

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