Tag: Amy Ryan

Capote (2005)

Philip Seymour Hoffman excels as the morally complex author in Capote

Director: Bennett Miller

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Truman Capote), Catherine Kenner (Nelle Harper Lee), Clifton Collins Jnr (Perry Smith), Chris Cooper (Alvin Dewey), Bob Balaban (William Shawn), Bruce Greenwood (Jack Dunphy), Katherine Shindle (Rose), Amy Ryan (Marie Dewey), Mark Pellegrino (Dick Hickock)

What profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul? It’s the sort of summation that I imagine Truman Capote himself would object to as trite and obvious. But it’s a question at the heart of Bennett Miller’s thoughtful, low-key biographical drama that seems to capture not only the agony of writing and creation, but also something of the soul of its lead.

In November 1959, two drifters Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jnr) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) kill an entire family in a remote farmhouse in Kansas. News of this is spotted by Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a brilliant novelist and New York intellectual, looking for his new project. Heading to Kansas, with assistant, novelist and lifelong friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), Capote’s initial plan for an article on the reaction of small-time America to unspeakable violence balloons into a full scale book, fuelled by his growing fascination for Perry Smith. While the book takes years – and the trial and appeals of the killer take longer and longer to resolve, the entire experience has an increasingly haunting effect on Capote himself.

Miller’s quietly and professionally assembled film, with a superbly haunting, autumnal feel to it that immediately echoes the blackness of the crime, and the traumatic effect being involved in it has on Capote. It’s also a superb film that understands how writers often work – the seizing of inspiration, the quiet observation, the shaping of moments and titbits of conversation into perfectly captured sentences that can be reproduced in the book. It helps that Capote has – despite his larger than life unusualness and eccentricity – a sort of unusual chameleon like ability, or rather the ability of the charismatically self-obsessed to make all others yearn for his attention and approval.

It’s all part of the many facets of the Capote’s personality that is brought out in Hoffman’s superb performance. Winning the Oscar – and almost every other award going – Hoffman perfectly captures not just every single physical and vocal attribute of Capote, but also seems to seize part of his soul as well. This is such a masterful examination of a person’s psyche, mixed desires and conflicting feelings that Hoffman’s psychological insight seems totally legitimate. Hoffman’s performance is strikingly perfect, transformative in the way few actors manage.

Hoffman’s Capote is a man who flits between arrogance and a caring tenderness, self-doubt and ruthless, consideration and selfishness, who slowly becomes more and more unnerved not only perhaps by his fascination with a brutal killer, but also the own moral depths he is willing to go to. He’s manipulative, emotionally intelligent and genuine enough to gain the confidence of a wide range of people – from Chris Cooper’s gimlet-eyed agent investigating the case (won other by his wife’s fondness for Capote’s novels and Capote’s starry Hollywood anecdotes) to Perry Smith’s would-be intellectual and sensitive soul who is also a hardened killer. 

It’s that relationship with Smith that is the heart of the film, Captoe’s growing closeness with him akin to a seduction, Smith the willing talker, flattered to share his insights into life with the famous writer, Capote eager to gain secret confessions of what was flashing through Smith’s mind while he committed the killings. But it goes deeper than that: Capote grows – or persuades himself he does, so great is his deception – a genuine affection and regard for Smith, wanting perhaps to see that there is more to him than appears. Nursing Smith through a hunger-strike he feeds him by hand. He spends hours in his cell. He reads every scrap Smith gives him of his writing. There is a slight breathless tension to their scenes together, and Capote agonises over the idea of Smith being executed, even as he begins to be repelled by the influence of letting someone else into his life is having over him, and his ability to finish the book.

Because finishing the book is his aim, and his every action is based around getting to that goal. Every moment of flattery and openness gains some other advantage, every second of his time in Kansas is based around soaking up the information he needs to complete the work. But the book will never be complete and finished, because Capote himself has become such a part of the story – by becoming a part of Smith’s life – it seems to almost start draining Capote himself. Writing the book, is like writing his own life, pulling out elements of his own psyche, his own darkness, you feel Capote would rather not explore.

Because as much as he enjoys the recognition and glory readings of the book bring him – he is increasingly unnerved by his own ruthless treatment of Smith. Lying to Smith about the progress of the book, lying about the title, ignoring his phone calls, finally brow beating Smith into telling all of his story about the killing by disparaging all of Smith’s “insight” by claiming there is no concept or idea that Smith can express that has not already occurred to Capote. Smith is a killer, but he is also somehow a sort of lost boy – Collins performance brings a lot out of the strange innocence and promise in Smith – and it still alarms Capote privately that he can so use Smith, lie so completely to him and still feel such overwhelming unnerved grief – or fear or something – when Smith is executed, and execution he has done nothing to help prevent despite his promises to the contrary.

Capote feels equal mixed feelings about fellow writers. His partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood in a very good performance) seems to accept his role as the lesser light – and their relationship works all the better for it. Easier than the friendship between himself and Harper Lee, superbly played by Catherine Keener. Keener and Hoffman have a natural chemistry, reflecting Capote and Lee who know each other so well they can literally finish each other’s sentences and completely understand each other. Capote however cannot accept Lee’s success of her own, striking a wedge in the relationship – just as Lee begins to believe that Capote is manipulating real people like fictional tools for his journalistic novel.

Capote tackles complex and fascinating ideas in a coolly well-assembled, extremely well directed, framework that gets some sense of the difficulties and challenges involved in artistic creation – and the moral compromises that some people are driven to make to achieve them. Not to mention the way we are can make ourselves increasingly more and more uncomfortable as we discover more and more about our own personalities and flaws.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance find common ground in the Cold War in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks (James B Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Scott Shepherd (CIA Agent Hoffman), Billy Magnussen (Doug Forrester), Jesse Plemons (Joe Murphy), Dakin Matthews (Judge Mortimer W Byers)

Steven Spielberg is perhaps best known for his cult block busters – and has indeed directed some of the finest popular adventure movies you are likely to see. But more of his output – particularly in recent years – is focused on intelligent, slightly old-school, handsome, period films that look to shed light on political and social issues of the past. Bridge of Spies falls firmly into this camp, an extremely well-made (if rather dry at times) prestige picture, blessed with a fascinating story and some very fine performances.

In 1957, Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York and put on trial. He’s the most unpopular man in America – except perhaps for the man plucked from a list of New York attorneys to defend him, James B Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan doesn’t endear himself to the American public by successfully defending Abel from the death penalty, but he’s proved right when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the USSR, and a prisoner exchange is set up for Abel and Powers, with Donovan negotiating the details in a wintery Berlin.

Bridge of Spies has an old-fashioned charm to it – you can totally imagine it popping up on a bank holiday afternoon. It’s what you might call “grown-up entertainment” in the sense that it tells a character-focused story. It’s made with an unfussy assurance that never allows its cinematic excellence to get flashy, and it patiently unfolds an intriguing character study that gives excellent opportunities to some gifted actors. 

It’s also got a vein of wit running through it – you can see the fingerprints of the Coen brothers, brought in to do a polish of the script. They are there in the touches of the absurd as Donovan goes behind the Iron Curtain, mixing with an eccentric group of East Germans pretending to Abel’s family. Their also there in the moments of chill around the East German forces who suppress freedom and endanger lives. But it’s brought to life because Spielberg is such a wonderful, vibrant director.

Spielberg knows where to bring the flash and where to settle and let the camera watch the actors at work. Despite the calm of the general shooting, the film is packed with some wonderful sequences of bravura film-making, told so skilfully and with enough confidence that they don’t need to draw attention to themselves with overly flashy camera work or editing. But sequences such as the one that begins the film with Abel unknowingly being followed through New York, or Powers’ U-2 flight being shot down, or a horrified Donovan watching luckless Germans try to climb the Berlin Wall while he rides a train expelling him from East Germany, are made with a confident, unflashy flair.

It’s a film which has a real understanding of the paranoia and knee-jerk prejudice of the Cold War (on both sides of the curtain, but particularly in America), that mixes this with a note of hope in the essential decency of those on the ground – Roger Ebert described it as like a John Le Carre if it had been directed by Frank Capra – and that’s a good description. Spielberg’s film casts Donovan as the “little guy” who has to do the right thing and struggle to be accepted by his fellow Americans. Donovan’s travails in East Berlin have a Capra-ish quality to them, as his straight-shooting decency and integrity come up against the oblique games and half-truths of professional diplomats and spies. Abel as well is basically a solid, stand-up guy with a very clear moral compass and a dry wit that points out the quirks of both American and Soviet systems.

Tom Hanks is perfect casting as Donovan. He’s much overlooked as a great actor, and Donovan plays to his strengths, using all his integrity and trustworthiness to great effect. His Donovan is an honest broker, a man who believes above all in the cause of justice and has a good-natured confidence that allows him to never be flummoxed or even to show too much impatience with those putting obstacles in his way, even as he works overtime to get his way. It’s a perfect Hanks part played by perfection.

The film also boasts an excellent, Oscar-winning, performance by Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Embracing the movies for the first time, Rylance could probably play Abel standing on his head, and this acting heavyweight turns in a performance full of sparkle and wit. Rylance is softly spoken, with a combination of world-weariness, wry humour and a dry unreadability. Abel however is also a fiercely loyal and decent man – and it’s the contrast and bond that develops between him and Donovan that powers the movie.

In fact you can’t help but miss him in the second half, interesting as Donovan’s patiently done and labyrinthine negotiations between the KGB, Stasi and CIA become. At times this second half becomes slightly drier than the rest – as if Spielberg can’t quite manage to keep the sense of intimidation and danger in place for the whole of these protracted scenes of bluff and double bluff. It’s also probably a fraction too long. It’s not a perfect movie after all – Donovan’s family are a series of bland identities (“Honey stop trying to end the Cold War and come to bed”) and the film’s final coda of Donovan getting the approval of the American people on contrasting train rides is a little too trite in its “ain’t freedom great” tone.

But I really like Bridge of Spies. It’s calm, it’s assured, it’s very well made, it’s very well acted. There is a lot of quality on show here – it practically drips off the show – and it’s made by a director who knows he doesn’t need to wrestle your attention with every shot to keep it. Spielberg is a director so talented that he can excel at making intelligent, grown-up movies that have something for everyone. For all that it’s slightly overlong and can’t quite keep its momentum up, I really like it.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Michael Keaton is haunted by his superhero alter-ego in Iñárritu’s well made but heavy handed theatre satire

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Michael Keaton (Riggan Thomson), Zach Galifianakis (Jake), Edward Norton (Mike Shiner), Andrea Riseborough (Laura Aulburn), Amy Ryan (Sylvia Thomson), Emma Stone (Sam Thomson), Naomi Watts (Lesley Truman), Lindsay Duncan (Tabitha Dickinson), Merritt Wever (Annie)

Oscar voters seem to be invariably drawn towards stories about actors and acting. Put together a decent and ambitious movie about those subjects, ideally with a sprinkling of gentle satire that pokes fun at acting but basically says at the end it is a noble profession, and you got yourself a contender. So it was with Birdman.

Riggan Thomson (a career revitalising role for Michael Keaton) is a faded movie star who hit celebrity 15 years ago with a series of films about a superhero, Birdman. Today he is trying to reclaim his artistic integrity by directing, adapting and starring in a Raymond Carver story on Broadway. At the same time he wants to rebuild a relationship with his daughter (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict. The film covers the stumbling journey towards the opening night, with Thomson dealing with a demanding and difficult enfant terrible co-star (Ed Norton), a string of disasters and the haunting presence of his Birdman alter-ego, lambasting his choices and urging him to return to blockbusters.

I’m going to lay into this film a bit. It’s harsh, because it is really trying to do something different, for which it deserves credit. So I’ll start with the good stuff. The conceit of making the film look like it was done in one take is extraordinarily well done – the camera work is inventive and extraordinary. Emmanuel Lubezki is a visual genius and the technical accomplishment is astounding, a real tour-de-force. The acting is also very good. Michael Keaton embraces the best script he had in years, giving the part such commitment and emotion you overlook it’s a fairly simple part. Emma Stone is raw and tragic as his daughter. Ed Norton gives one of his finest performances as a dickish method actor (a neat self-parody) who in quieter conversations reveals real depth – and provides more insights into the passion for creativity than virtually anything else in the film.

Okay, that’s the really good stuff. It’s got some good lines as well, and its general style never stops being entertaining. But it’s also nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It wants to be a profound study of the nature of life and art, but it never really gets to grips with these ideas or drills down into them. For art, its contrasts are simplistic verging on hectoring. It never really gets to the heart of what acting is or means. For life it boils down into a straightforward “father wants to win back love of family” plot. The film presents all this as something deep and meaningful, and uses a lot of style and razamatazz – but the basic points remain simple or under-explored.

Part of my problem with the film is that is wears its pseudo-intelligence rather too heavily, and it ends up turning into smugness. Lubezki’s camera work is extraordinary but it also has a “look-at-me” quality that really begins to distract from the viewing of the film – even second time around the content of the film passes you by a bit. Tellingly, on the DVD Iñárritu talks about being drawn to the project because he wanted to make a film that felt like it was done in one take. Fine, but perhaps it would have been better if he had been a bit more interested in, say, the content of the film itself? Everything about the film-making demands you give it your attention, from the camerawork to the insistent drumming soundtrack. These elements are not bad in themselves – but it’s showing off rather than craft servicing the film.

The film’s themes themselves are, I think, also not as interesting or challenging as the film-makers believe them to be. The central idea of actors being shallow with chaotic home lives is so tired as to be a cliché: “Why don’t I have any self-respect?”/”You’re an actress, honey” summarises the sort of jokes you’ve seen before in other films.

I also felt the film’s attempts to analyse the nature of art and performance were formulaic and even rather empty. Lindsay Duncan plays a chilly theatre critic, determined to destroy the play, and Keaton delivers well Riggan’s rant to her on using labels and presenting opinions as facts. There isn’t any counterbalance to this offered, no exploration of, for example, criticism can service art or how opinion guides our reception of what we perceive as good art. A heavy handed fantasy sequence has his Birdman alter ego addressing the camera directly “Look at these people, at their eyes… they’re sparkling. They love this shit.” Yeah Alejandro we get it, we are shallow and deep down prefer action films than all this “ talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit” – hardly an original thought, and hardly framed originally though, is it? Do we really need to be whacked on the head with it? What point is this trying to make that we haven’t heard hundreds of times before?

But then is it any wonder that it wants to try and make points about cinema rather than theatre? For a film set exclusively in a theatre, I don’t really feel that its makers really understand the pressures or nature of theatre. Instead, it merely stands in here as a short hand for “cultural worthiness” – Riggan might as well be making an independent film or writing a novel, theatre is just a counterpoint used for blockbuster films (a genre Iñárritu clearly does understand and has opinions on). Nothing in the film really seems to capture a real sense of backstage in a theatre or what putting on a play is like, for example Peter Yates’ film of The Dresser. There is no sense of the collaborative nature of the medium or its immediacy as a performance art – it’s labelled as lazily as a vehicle for pretension and self loathing as criticism is for bitterness and failure.

The film also plays with the notion of Riggan’s (possibly) unhinged nature. Throughout the film we see him use superpowers – levitation, telekenesis, flight, control of fire. Along with his haunting by the Birdman character (done with a nice parody of the gravelly Christian Bale-Batman voice), it all ties into the possibility that Riggan is losing the ability to keep his real life and his career’s defining moment from merging into one another. The film’s ending builds on this, playfully suggesting some of what we have seen might have been real (though it also could be interpreted as a final dream sequence) – but I’m not sure what is gained by introducing these skills other than for visual flair. Riggan’s inner turmoil is never explored fully by the film and I don’t feel the film has the patience to explore his feelings or depression. As such, I find the open-ended ending doesn’t really add anything – it feels like it has been inserted to create debate, rather than acting as a culmination for your interpretation of the film, a la Inception say.

Phew. Birdman is by no means a bad film. It is a good one, but not a great one. It has much to admire, both on a technical and performance level, but (like Riggan) it is straining for an intellectual depth and thematic richness that simply isn’t there. It’s a showpiece, a brilliantly done one, really impressive to watch and it dazzles while it takes place – but there isn’t much to talk about afterwards. It is what it is. Compared to this year’s film-about-acting, La La Land, it’s both less charming and less profound, and has less to tell us about the compromises and struggles of real life. You can enjoy it, and it needs to be seen, but I can’t see it ageing well.