Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Paul Giamatti”

Straight Outta Compton

This biopic of rap group N.W.A has generated enormous excitement among fans but probably little curiosity from those who either couldn’t care less about hip-hop culture or think the whole lifestyle is morally reprehensible.

So first, to the fans: Straight Outta Compton is as good as you’ve heard, so just go.

And now, to build a case for a wider audience, here’s why it’s such a blast:

One core strength is that the members of LA’s most super group were on board with the dramatizing of their journey through fame, and it was directed by long-time collaborator F. Gary Gray. (While most directors graduate from music videos to focus on film, Gray has continued to work with hip-hop artists throughout a career which includes The Negotiator and the remake of The Italian Job.)

So with not rights issues, we get to hear all the music, nowhere better than through a cinema screen, mouthed expertly by a cast of excellent actors who rapidly suspend your disbelief as they spin exhilarating rhymes and own the concert stage. The best of these is, inevitably, O’Shea Jackson Jr. who is the spitting image of his father Ice Cube, but you’re also watching break-out performances by Jason Mitchell (a superb Eazy-E) and the baby-faced lothario that is Corey Hawkins’ Dr. Dre. For most audiences the only familiar face will be Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller, the manager who saw the opportunity to send a bunch of black kids from south-central Los Angeles into the stratosphere of superstardom. And their trip is never short of enthralling.

But to address any misgivings: Is it misogynist? Absolutely – hardly a bastion of fleshed-out female roles, the women on screen fall into two camps: silent buxom-girl-in-(or-out-of)-bikini and long-suffering wife/girlfriend/mother with two lines of dialogue. We either accept it, as with The Wolf of Wall Street, as being sadly a realistic depiction of the inherently sexist lifestyle or we put away our Bechdel test and leave the cinema.

Similarly, does the film glamorise the pouty lipped, hard-eyed stare that accompanies the “Don’t mess with me” saunter of arrogance in its youthful protagonists? Of course it does. But how can it not? Straight Outta Compton illustrates the moral conundrum that most hip-hop music (gangsta, police-baiting or otherwise) grows out of understandable indignation at centuries of discrimination and injustice. While matter-of-fact, the film’s scenes of police brutality and victimisation, contextualised by the sorry state of 1990s Los Angeles, are far more chilling than the booty shots.

As the sum of its wonderful parts, Straight Outta Compton is endlessly informative, entertaining and exhilarating, and a must-watch account of N.W.A’s legacy.

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Love & Mercy

I never knew about Brian Wilson’s struggles with mental illness, but of course I know the Beach Boys’ songs. Even for this relative novice, watching how classics like Good Vibrations and God Only Knows came into being is a fascinating, troubling experience. Doubtless there will be true fans for whom this film chronicling Wilson’s life will be part-revelation, part-devastation.

We first meet Wilson in a Cadillac dealership, where he encounters the luminous Melinda (Elizabeth Banks, finally freed from all the silliness of Pitch Perfect and The Hunger Games). Thereafter ensues a now-and-then tale of the main Beach Boy’s rise through fame and fortune and subsequent descent into hell.

What elevates Love & Mercy above a standard biopic are the lead performances from Paul Dano (Wilson the younger) and John Cusack (1980s Wilson). Despite never being able to quite suspend my disbelief that it was Dano and Cusack up on screen, they are both sensational at inhabiting Wilson’s nervous tics and wild-eyed paranoia as Paul Giamatti’s perfectly nuanced psychologist ingratiates himself into Wilson’s world, gradually taking complete, frightening control.

It is a gruelling watch at times, whatever your attachment to the man or the music. Wilson’s dissociative behaviour (sensitively portrayed by Cusack) clearly arose out of an abusive childhood, but, as is so often the way, his musical brilliance – the essence of some of the movie’s most enthralling scenes – also grew out of his dysfunction. Love & Mercy is tribute and education all in one.

San Andreas

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 31st May 2015

This excellent disaster movie caters to the voyeur in us all – or, at least, those of us who were spared the nightmarish experience of our recent homegrown earthquakes – by giving us front-row seats at the spectacular large-scale devastation of California.

Thankfully, holding our hand and saving the day is Dwayne Johnson, one of Hollywood’s most reliable action heroes and an actor of surprising nuance. San Andreas is elevated further above the genre by the canny casting of Paul Giamatti (once Sideways, now everything of note) and a surprisingly good alumnus of Home and Away, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, who dons a fine English accent and helps to break the film out of being just another American-feeling movie about America getting pummelled. (There are Welsh and British actors in the ensemble, too, and even a strange cameo from an Aussie popstar – a sign Hollywood is becoming pleasingly cosmopolitan.)

Despite the bog-standard disaster set-up (devoted divorced dad who works for Fire & Rescue; ex-wife moving on; plucky daughter in tight jeans), the action is absolutely thrilling from Go to Whoa. A terrifically nail-biting opener sets the scene for nearly two hours of literally jaw-dropping moments as San Francisco and Los Angeles take a beating from Mother Nature. Better yet, Giamatti’s seismologist harbinger delivers his doom-ridden clichés with a straight face and absolute commitment – a tone also carried by Johnson even as he is established as the bicep-bulging hero who’s “Just doing my job”.

The subject is one which may sit a little close to home for New Zealand audiences, but while one isn’t gloating at the American devastation, it’s impossible not to feel awe. Usefully, Giamatti reminds us to “Drop, Cover, Hold” as he pulls a colleague away from the doorframe and under a table. (Thank goodness the movies can teach us something.)

Doing exactly what it says on the tin, San Andreas is hugely exciting and utterly enjoyable. Better just make sure you’ve got that tin-opener in your civil defence kit.

The Ides of March

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 19th February 2012

Fresh from goofing about in the tear-jerking The Defendants, George Clooney is back, this time directing, co-writing and starring in a political thriller that has you wound as tightly as its characters right until the end.

Clooney plays Democratic Governor Mike Morris, presidential hopeful in the primary stages of his race to the White House.  It’s a two-horse race, and interestingly we don’t see the other horse except in sound-bites on television – because this is Morris’s contest.  We see his campaign office, peopled by bright-eyed young interns, and watch two cynically experienced campaign managers (the typically excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti) play everyone like the strategists they are.

Wisely, however, Clooney doesn’t make it all about his character.  For the centre-piece in this particular battle of chess is the young, smart and idealistic Stephen (Ryan Gosling), Morris’s brilliant communications manager.  Ethically clear-cut – he will only “do anything and say anything” for that which he believes in – Stephen is suddenly embroiled in a series of events that see him questioning his loyalty and priorities.

Clooney loves a political movie, having scored high with Good Night, and Good Luck his black and white, Oscar-nominated 1950s retelling of the McCarthy era.  This story leaps forward sixty years, into a contemporary American tale which has some resonances with politicians we’ve seen come and go in recent years.  But the story is almost arbitrarily “political” – Stephen’s choices, his treatment at the hands of merciless friends and colleagues, and his ensuing predicament could all have happened in any boardroom, TV studio or trading floor.

As with Clooney’s other thoughtful works, The Ides of March isn’t full of rousing action set-pieces, but burns slowly at first, establishing its characters’ motivations and then, one by one, tipping them upside down.  With uniformly superb performances (Evan Rachel Wood’s feisty young intern is a pleasant surprise), perhaps the greatest bittersweet pleasure is in watching Gosling’s Stephen lose his idealistic sheen as the conflict intensifies.  His subsequent trajectory from bishop, to pawn, to rook is gripping.

Coming in at a modest one hour forty, the sudden, seemingly premature ending leaves you wishing (for once) that we could follow Gosling’s journey even further into the depths of what must surely be Stephen’s own personal hell.  Meanwhile, Clooney asserts himself a serious contender for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar next week.

Barney’s Version

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 29th May 2011

Sometimes a film is so laden with casting coups you can’t quite believe it’ll be as good as you hope.  Thankfully, the ensemble in Barney’s Version seem to be having the time of their lives, and the resulting film is a treat.

Paul Giamatti (best known for 2004’s Sideways but wonderful since) plays Barney Panofsky, whose three marriages, various business ventures, exotic travels, characterful family members and a murder accusation provide ripe fare for cinema.

We meet him, drunk and embittered, towards the end of this story, when life insists he casts an eye back over the slings and arrows.  Following his first ill-fated marriage (“She’s a conversation piece, not a wife!”), Minnie Driver steals some scenes as Wife No.2, the Jewish princess at whose wedding reception Barney falls for Rosamund Pike’s exquisite Miriam (and, appalling as this seems, we can understand why).  Dustin Hoffman offers superb support in every sense as Barney’s loyal dad, and Scott Speedman (no doubt relieved to be free from Underworld) is enjoyable as the womanising wingman.

Based on Mordechai Richler’s deservedly prize-winning comic novel, this is a blast from first scene to last, though you leave the cinema glad to have experienced Barney’s bittersweet version of events vicariously, and not to have had to live it.

 

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