Monday, February 24, 2014

Mind and Body Problem

The Illumination (1973) - Zanussi
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The Mind-body problem -- this well worn, philosophical quandary is Krzyszstof Zanussi's theme in The Illumination. Using archival science lab footage, Zanucci examines the life of a bookish fella Franciszek (Stanislaw Latallo) as he enters college deciding on studying Physics, because it's studying something concrete. But he finds out that life is nothing but. During mountain hiking trip, he encounters death first-hand in an accident. During the same trip, he falls in love too with a cute fellow student. The girl he falls in love with gets pregnant and Frank needs to drop out of college to support his new family. He gets into existential crisis, seldom coming home to domestic life. He has a change of mind about what he wants to study if he ever got back to academia- biology. He even visits a monastery to seek some answers.

The Illumination is, as the narration says in the beginning, quite different from temporary ecstasy or trance. It's the true understanding of life. With that, the film is more cerebral than Dušan Makavejev films. It is pretty similar with Alain Resnais's Mon oncle Amerique in its presentation and theme. I'm glad I got to see it.

I found the film in its entirety on youtube:
Click Here

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Wall Between Us, Literally and Figuratively

Omar (2013) - Abu-Assad
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With Omar, this is the second time Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad is being nominated for an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film category. His previous effort, Paradise Now ended up winning a Golden Globe only. Even if you take away the political aspect, the film works as a superb noir that is as compelling as The Departed or any number of great undercover policiers of the West. Abu-Assad is a great storyteller. He doesn't have to resort to a satire to illustrate his point. Everything feels very real and immediate in Omar. And the 30 feet concrete security wall speaks more volumes about the absurdity of the situation people engage themselves in the Occupied Territories than any political soapbox speech.

If Paradise Now served in telling the world how the Occupation and its debilitating effects make suicide bombers out of people who have been robbed of their dignity, Omar digs deeper into its effects on a personal level and shows how it tears the fabric of the community apart.

The film starts with Omar (Adam Bakri) climbing up the Isreali security wall, dodging bullets parkour style, to get to his girlfriend Nadja (Leem Lubani)'s house, located on the other side of the wall, still in Palestinian territory. This is a normal, daily routine for him. This is the life of people living in the Occupied Territories in the West Bank. He is in love with Nadja, a younger sister of Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) who is the ringleader of a resistance group and Omar's best friend. Omar can't ask her to marry him because she is still in High School and hasn't earned Tarek's respect yet. But he has been saving money, working at a bakery, day in and day out. A man can dream at least, can't he? Omar, Tarek and their childhood friend Amjad (Samer Bisharat) practices their sharp shooting skills and constantly renew their allegiance to the cause against the Occupation.

They put their skills to the test and chooses an Israeli army barrack from a distance and Amjad shoots and kills a soldier. In their minds, this is the beginning of their long awaited dive into freedom fighting. The next day, Israeli soldiers are everywhere and after a long chase through the narrow alleys and over the rooftops, Omar gets captured. He is tortured and coerced. His desperate yell: "I'll never confess!" will be used against him in the Israeli military tribunal and he will serve at least 60 years in prison, if he doesn't tell them who pulled the trigger. He will never see Nadja again. They will never make it to Paris for their honeymoon.

He is released under condition of delivering Tarek (the Israelis think it's Tarek who pulled the trigger). Omar tells Tarek everything and they plan an ambush. Tarek will consider Omar's intentions on Nadja after the ambush. Apparently, Amjad asked for Nadja's hand too. The planned ambush doesn't even take off the ground. With their superior military might, Israelis capture Omar again in minutes. With little damning information from snide Israeli intel officer Rami (superb Waleed Zuaiter), Omar has to make everything right the second time against insurmountable odds.

The film's tragedy is amplified by its young, attractive characters who have a wall between them, literally and figuratively. Omar works as a heart pounding thriller as well as an affecting love story that will leave you a lot to chew on. 

Omar is scheduled to open in NY (Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Film Center), LA and other cities on February 21 followed by a national release. Please visit Adopt Films' website to find out more.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

'The only place I can feel human emotion is in cinemas now' Hany Abu-Assad Interview

Hany Abu-Assad's Omar, a political thriller and a love story set in the Occupied Territories is Palestine's official entry for this year's Oscar for The Best Foreign Language Film. This is Abu-Assad's second nomination in that category since Paradise Now (2005). As a lover of cinema, Abu-Assad not only talked about Israeli-Palestinian issues but also the global cinema influences into making Omar and the fiction as the pure form of expressing human condition in our media soaked society.

First of all, congratulations on being nominated for the Academy Award for the second time.

Thank you.

You've made Rana's Wedding, Paradise Now and Omar in the Occupied Territories. How hard is it to shoot a film there logistically and politically?

Life under the occupation is always difficult. Filmmaking (for me) is part of life and it's extra difficult because you have less freedom than usual - freedom of movement, even freedom to tell your ideas. Funnily, this time, I didn't have any problems from the authorities. I think, because of one simple reason - if they gave me trouble, every journalist in the world would ask me how my film shoot was there. So no, I have no stories to tell.  (laughs) They are very happy now because there were no stories to tell. I am happy because I had my freedom to shoot.

So it has changed since you've started making films over there.

Yes, for me. But not for normal people who live there. You have to make it clear.

Yes of course.

No, the situation is still the same for normal people. For me yes, because it's better for them to be easier on me. They were very smart about this.

Not that there aren't funny moments in your film, but Omar feels more grounded in reality than, say, Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention where he uses humor in political satire and parody. Your methods are much more direct. Do you think it's more effective or is it just your preference?

Yes. You always do what you like. You do what you admire. If I made a list of ten movies I like by other filmmakers, they would be all realistic movies with realistic characters. An example? One of the last movies I saw was Nebraska and I was so stunned by the movie because it's so simple and real. It felt, even in black and white, more real than anything. I love that. When you admire movies, you want to do the same, you know? For me, it's the movies that resemble reality. Sure, others love satires and taking more abstract approach. It's 'you do what you like'. I like movies that are grounded.

I couldn't help noticing that Omar is very much a film noir. If you disregard the whole political situation, I can see the same story taking place in New York or Boston easy. Where did you draw your inspirations from?

You are completely correct. Omar is a love story and a political thriller. The thriller element is very strong . It's a genre movie. In a thriller, there is a constant search for 'the traitor'. That's where the tension is created.

In that genre, there are three traditions: The American, French and Egyptian. Americans made some great thrillers -- No Way Out, The Firm, The Three Days of Condor....  French do it completely different as in Le Circle Rouge and Le Samurai. Egyptions also have a great tradition of making thrillers. There is Stranger in my House (with Omar Sharif), Al Karnak.... Now, Americans do best in plot driven thrillers, French do well with its characters inner conflict with contrast between closes ups and wide shots and Egyptians put in human elements in thrillers. Usually to keep the tension high, characters don't do ordinary stuff, like going to the bathroom or eating. They don't make jokes. Those elements are usually cut out. But Egyptians succeeded in keeping in those human touches while maintaining tension. I wanted to do a movie where i can express my love for the American, French and Egyptian thrillers. This is how I made Omar because it's kind of universal combining those thriller traditions I love. Going back to your question. Yes it is a film noir, using those traditions. But I hope the film stands out as its own.

So you are a big film buff. you watch a lot of movies.

Sure. I think every filmmaker should be like that. Funny enough, the only place that I can express my emotions is in cinema. Nowadays, real life has become so fake: you encounter so much fake emotions I can't watch news anymore. The only place I can feel human feeling is in cinemas now. Because we live in the consumerist society where everything is being consumed, there is no interest for human beings. Even though cinema is fiction, I feel the only way you can feel human emotions is through your imaginations.

As a film buff myself, I agree with your sentiment.

The most moving and poignant moment in Omar is after thing went down badly, Omar's inability to climb over the security wall, which he could easily before. Could you tell me about what's going on with him in his head?

It's completely a scene about motivation. If there was a motivation behind, you can climb walls, jump, whatever. If there is no motivation and you know you are going to your end, because going to the other side means that you have to confront what you did, to confront your sin. It means you have to pay the price for your sin, to be punished.  It's something he has to do, but it's also something he is dreading.

How was the reception of the film in both Palestine and Israel?

In Palestine, excellent. Everyone who saw the film loved it. They came out with the mixed feelings, happy and sad which was good because I love this kind of endings. Surprisingly, the reception in Israel was good. I was expecting more...

More of a backlash?

Yeah. But a lot of people appreciated it. I was surprised. I think it's a good sign. Obviously I expected some haters who wouldn't like its politics. But usually, good movies challenge your ideas- moral judgment or political judgment. A good movie should challenge your thoughts. Even if you don't agree about the politics, you can still appreciate it because it's a good filmmaking. When you decide to judge my movie because of pure political reasons, I don't mind that judgment. Again, surprisingly, this time, most of the reactions I got were appreciations. This means that the whole society is changing, public is changing. I don't know... it's good. It's a good sign.

I have a two part question. First, can a film make a difference in the political arena?  And is the two state solution possible?

The first one is an easy one. I think movies can play a role in people's awareness and this awareness can cause for change. But the main goal of me making movies is to raise awareness. It's to raise awareness in Palestinians about themselves and the world about Palestinians. Again, I didn't make this movie to change anything. I wanted to make a movie that will survive the conflict. You want this movie to work when the conflict ends in twenty years or two years. Because the conflict will die. You don't want your movie to die with the conflict. So yes. The main goal of this movie is not really change things. Spreading awareness is a side effect but its goal is to challenge human beings in any time and place about their perception of life. I mean really challenge it, your thoughts about how your life looks like. It can be looked at differently. If I was there and made these mistakes, what should I have done differently? This is more important to me than changing political situations.

I don't know when the occupation will end. But there is hope and I am hopeful. I don't think two state solution is a realistic one. There are too many settlers and too many settlements so it's impossible now. You have to remove half a million people and that won't happen. The solution is one state. It will take time for people to realize that that's the only solution.

Good luck at the Oscar. It's been an honor to meet you.

The honor is all mine.

OMAR is scheduled to open in NY (Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Film Center), LA and other cities on February 21 followed by a national release. Please visit Adopt Films' website to find out more.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mother's Love

Child's Pose (2013) - Netzer
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Winner of Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and Romania's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film for this year's Oscar, Calin Peter Netzer's Child's Pose is a riveting family drama spiked with some sharp social commentary that is inherent in the Romanian New Wave. Veteran Romanian actress Luminita Gheorghiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, The Death of Mr. Lazarescue) gives a remarkable performance as Neli (Cornelia), a well-connected Romanian upper-class professional whose resolve as a mother of a deadbeat son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) gets tested.

The film opens with Neli's extravagant birthday dinner with many of important government officials attending. She tells her sister that Barbu is not only not showing up for the party, but told her to 'go suck a cock,' and that he wishes that the old generation would die off soon. Her sister tells her that he is too spoiled and she shouldn't pester him all the time. From the beginning, it is obvious that this mother-son relationship is strained beyond repair. Then a few days later, she gets the news that Barbu has run over and killed a child from a poor neighborhood and is in police custody. From then on, Neli uses every connection and power to get Barbu out of jail.

Neli is not an one dimensional caricature of a high society woman who is completely oblivious about class differences. But nonetheless, she remains a concerned mother to a spoiled son, who, now in his thirties, didn't turn out the way she wanted. Even with all the insults Barbu throws at her, she would stick by him and help him get through the hard times, even if that means begging the parents of the dead child for forgiveness in place of him.

Unlike recent class conscious satires like Lucrecia Martel's Headless Woman, Lou Ye's Mystery and even Bong Joon-ho's populist cinema Mother, Child's Pose is much more subtle and down to earth and much less melodramatic. In a typical Romanian New Wave fashion, Netzer favors unhurried, almost documentary like procedural to advance the story. Neli finds the local police difficult to deal with at first, but easily corruptible. Just as the witness of the crime, played here once again at his sleaziest by Vlad Ivanov (the memorable abortion doctor in 4 Months, 3 Days, 2 Days) can change his statement at the right price. With beautifully nuanced script by long time Netzer collaborator Razvan Radulescu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Child's Pose examines mother's obsessive love in the context of social dynamics in modern day Romania.

Child's Pose has a two week exclusive engagement at Film Forum in NYC starting 2/19. It opens in LA on 2/21 and the national roll out will follow.

Book Fetish

Goltzius and the Company (2012) - Greenaway
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Goltzius and his printing company employees ask a wealthy Italian merchant Margrave (F. Murray Abraham) money so they can continue printing series of high quality eroticas. Margrave agrees to give him the money, only if he and his trope performed 6 plays about 6 sexual taboos based on the Old Testament for his pleasure. Even though Margrave gave his court freedom of speech, the plays are too blasphemous for some to take. To complicate the matter even further, there are constant squabbles in the trope about the roles they play, whether or not to have sex in public (simulated or otherwise) and creative differences. Soon there are casualties for people confusing play with real life.

As usual, Greenaway's aesthetically robust production is visually stunning. He makes the great use of giant old smelting plant with wide lens as a Margrave's palace. All his usual elements are here - book fetish, necrophilia, erect penises, free speech.... Love how he equates Goltzius' endeavor with that of a film director - financing, mananging (and failing) egos on set, fighting censorship, politics dealing with the audiences, etc. But like most Greenaway's stuff, the repeated visual rigor loses its steam and gets tiresome mid-way. The put-on accents of some actors get in the way of dense texts as I tried to understand what's happening half the time. Also, I wish Greenaway stayed away from CG effects since it lessens the impact of his already crowded palate. Still, it's a mesmerizing visual feat.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Satan in Plain Clothes

Under the Sun of Satan (1987) - Pialat
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Young priest Donnisan (Gerard Depardieu) is struggling with his faith. His doubt leads him to self-flagellations of the body and mind. His superior views this as arrogance. On the way to another parish by foot, Donnisan has an unnerving encounter with satan in plain clothes. Satan's parting word is that Donnisan is a marked man. He then meets 16-year old harlot, Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire) who just murdered her older lover. It is a miracle that he can read through the girl's soul. He is convinced that it's satan's doing, not god's.

All this sounds outlandish and theatrical, but it's a Pialat film. It means everything is straightforward and extremely subtle. Heady, wordy theological exchange between Donnisan and his superior (played by Pialat) can be sometimes too dry. But Pialat never wavers in his no frills approach. Mouchette's storyline takes up the better first half of the film without interruption. The two encounter later in the film with stirring intensity that is quite something to see. The cold look of the film is completely appropriate for this somber, religious themed drama. Depardieu and Bonnaire are outstanding.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Child's Fever Dream

Paperhouse (1988) - Rose
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A mischievous Elementary School girl Anna (Charlotte Burk) is having fainting spells lately. In her fever dreams, she sees a house in the middle of a field and a paraplegic boy who lives there. For some reason, whatever she draws in her big sketchbook is directly related to what happens to the boy. Then she finds out that the boy exists in real life. The dreams become nightmares when Anna's anger toward her absent dad (Ben Cross) materializes.

I've been a fan of Brit director Bernard Rose ever since I saw Candyman. I always adored his visual style. This early effort of his is no exception. Stunning visuals and vivid imagination, Paperhouse is way too good to be regarded as a children's movie. It's also way too dark for kids but dang, ain't it maddeningly gorgeous!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Film Comment Selects 2014 Preview

Each year, Film Comment Magazine holds a film series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, its selection of films assembled from festivals around the world by its esteemed editors. In its 14th year, Film Comment Selects 2014 consists of 22 films (17 of them local premieres) from all corners of the cinema spectrum, including genre tropes, new films by seasoned and upcoming filmmakers, well-deserved revivals and Jane Campion's much praised TV show Top of the Lake in its entirety.

Specifically, the selection includes new films from Lukas Moodyson, Hong Sang-soo, Denis Villeneuve, Lasse Hallström, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ti West and much more.

It will also feature two earlier works (Wolfsberg and Ghosts) of the lead figure in Berliner Schule, Christian Petzold, The City of Pirates -- a seldom seen masterpiece by the master surrealist Raul Ruiz -- as well as the adaptation of Betrayal, arguably the greatest play that famed playwright Harold Pinter ever wrote, starring Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley.
The series will open with Hong's new film Our Sunhi and close with Bertolucci's Me and You. 

Please visit Film Society of Lincoln Center website for the full list and tickets. The series runs 2/17 - 2/27.

Here are the preview of five films I was able to watch in advance:

OUR SUNHI - Hong Sang-soo    *Opening Night Selection
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Singular, prolific Hong Sangsoo graces us with Our Sunhi, soon after last year's Nobody's Daughter Haewon. Another slight variation on the world of post-college entanglement soaked in soju & stained with cigarette butts. After getting a less than satisfying recommendation letter from her former professor, timid Sunhi (Jeong Yumi) confronts an old flame, Moonsoo and her former college senior and the professor in an attempt to define herself. The three men, all rekindled their interests in Sunhi, try to grapple themselves with their overwhelming attraction to the young woman who they find kind, smart and sometimes brave. Heavily inflected by alcohol and desire, their opinions of her overlap and get muddled. But in the end, after much digging, everyone reaches pretty much the same conclusion of that she is a good person. Hong concocts yet another delicious human comedy.

ME AND YOU/IO E TE - Bernardo Bertolucci     *Closing Night Selection
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The reason there hasn't been a new Bertolucci film for more than ten years was because the now 72-year-old master has been having health problems. His bad back led to multiple surgeries and, ultimately left him wheelchair-bound. Me and You, his new film, directed from his wheelchair is a simple, affecting story of a 14-year old loner and his older junkie sister bonding over the course of a week, trapped in the basement of their parent's apartment building.

The film is unexpectedly sweet. Sure, there is a bit of Bertolucci's usual sexual innuendos/brashness but skin is kept to a bare minimum. Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), a pimply young Malcolm McDowell lookalike fakes a school ski trip to get away from the world and his overbearing mom into the stuffy basement. He gets provisions (junk food) for a week, brings his computer, music and a freshly purchased ant farm for entertainment. But his peace is suddenly interrupted by his twenty something half-sister Olivia (sultry Tea Falco). She is heading up to the countryside to her friend/lover's, but first, she needs a place to crash in Rome to clean up her drug habits. Since she hates his mom, she blackmails Lorenzo to let her stay in his escape pad. Bertolucci uses a confined space effectively: the tiny shared space forces the siblings to bond and share intimate moments. Seeing these slightly drawn characters portrayed by not-too-pretty unknowns is refreshing in the world saturated with cookie-cutter pretty young thangs on TV.

If concentrating on youth reinvigorated Bertolucci to direct again despite his conditions and the result is this good, I am all for his future endeavors. The great soundtrack starts with The Cure's Boys Don't Cry and ends with Bowie's Space Oddity.

GHOSTS/GESPENSTER - Christian Petzold    *Revival
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My full review here

Blood Glacier - Marvin Kren
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3 German scientists and a technician stationed at the high Alps to monitor the ever receding ice shelf have a stunning discovery one day. The part of the glacier has turn red. They suspect that it's some kind of bacterial phenomenon. Little do they know that it thawed mutation causing microbes that turn mountain mammals and insects into a giant hideous mutants, preying on humans. Things get hairy when a team accompanying an important government minister arrives for a tour.
This is a sophomore effort from Marvin Kren, whose low-budget, solid German zombie flick Rammbock delighted the genre fans few years back. Blood Glacier is a topical eco-disaster horror mashup of The Thing and The Mist. Quite enjoyable

CITY OF PIRATES - Raul Ruiz    *Revival
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My full review here

THE FLESH OF MY FLESH - Denis Dercourt
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French director Denis Dercourt writes, directs, edits and also does camera sound work in Flesh of My Flesh, a psychological horror in the vein of Repulsion. With a shallow focus and soft edges, the handheld image mostly concentrate on the face of mentally unstable heroine (new comer Anna Juliana Jaenner) for much of the running time. Anna, a young Austrian woman working as a domestic worker/nanny in France has a sick daughter. In order to improve her daughter's condition, Anna needs to feed her human flesh and blood. With often veiled, soft frames, Dercourt succeeds in reflecting Anna's singular mental state. But I find the film too clinically cold and distant and its elliptical storytelling devoid of mystery or seductive power.

CANNIBAL - Manuel Martin Cuenca
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With a pitch perfect performance from Antonio de la Torre as the title role, Manuel Martin Cuenca's expert, low-key film betrays its not-too-subtle title. De la Torre plays Carlos, a soft spoken, loner tailor living in deeply the religious town Granada. He has a dark side: he likes to kill women whom he is attracted to and consume them. Things change when a flirtatious Romanian masseuse Alexandra (Olimpia Melinte) moves in to his building. After Alexandra's suspicious disappearance, her introverted sister Nina (Melinte playing a double role), comes into his life.

Sumptuously photographed and beautifully acted, Cannibal is a real gem. Cuenta manages to translate a tricky subject into a moving love story.

Johnny Got His Gun

RoboCop (2014) - Padilha
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The thing about Paul Verhoeven movies in the 90s was that it's so knowingly cynical and campy, you can't ever make it serious the second time, like some other action franchises. Fortunately, the makers of this redux were smart enough to realize this. This reboot is more like a clean cut, paint by numbers style actioner with no serious pretention. Sleaze is gone though- no grisly death by acid or bullet to the head, no raping, murdering punks, no Nancy Allen. They are replaced by corrupt cops, right wing media celebrities and calculating capitalists. But José Padilha gives his veteran character actors enough room to shine - Michael Keaton has never been this effective in a role in a long while, as a cold-hearted industrialist and it seems Sam Jackson is playing himself in a role written for him. Gary Oldman is again, playing against type as a conscientious scientist and Jackie Earl Haley eschews his limited screen time as a seasoned mercenary soldier, calling Murphy a 'tin man'. Newcomer Joel Kinnaman is no Peter Weller but has a almost a Stallonesque working class hero charm. Enjoyable.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dark World

Kill List (2011) - Wheatley
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OK. I'm on board again in believing Ben Wheatley as the 'real deal'. Kill List starts out as a crime drama but ends as a total wtf. Wheatley's measured, careful composition, editing and soundtrack creates an ominous place filled with mystery and intrigue. It's violent, eerie and original, if not in its content, in execution. The less you know the better the experience will be. It's one of those dark films which its images will linger over your head for days. Wheatley's in the same league as Refn and Park Chan-wook as the reigning visual stylist of our day. I can't wait to see A Field in England when it comes out.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, dead at 46

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I don't go around announcing someone's passing like some gossip newspaper columnist. But this afternoon, when I heard Philip Seymour Hoffman found dead in his New York apartment, possibly by heroin overdose, I can't help but great sadness overtaking me. It's not that he was my favorite actors of all time or anything, but he was one of those actors who were always solid and watchable on screen. I remember him playing bit parts in Hollywood movies, then being typecast in indie films as 'that creepy fat guy'. He was not your typical handsome movie star. But his talent was too enormous, too great for people to ignore.

Most memorable character he played, for me, was in Charlie Kaufman's magnum opus, Synecdoche, New York, as a long suffering writer, beaten down by life, ambition and carrying the burden of having a creative mind. He used his physicality and awkwardness fully in the biopic Capote, garnering much deserved recognition and fame. He also shined as a larger than life but ultimately emperor with no clothes in PT Anderson's The Master, the slight play on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. I'll watch Mission Impossible III tonight, just because he was in it (I've heard he is good in it, as usual). RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman, I'll miss you.