Posts Tagged ‘Paul Giamatti’

By some quirk of programming (or counterprogramming), UK cinemas are currently hosting two musical bio-pics pretty much guaranteed to leave the sympathetic viewer leaving the cinema making the same observations (and I should know, for I heard someone doing so this week): ‘what an enormous talent… awful how everyone around them exploited them so terribly… of course, all the drugs didn’t help…’ One of these films is Asif Kapadia’s Amy, which is pretty much a straight documentary, while going down the based-on-a-true-story route is Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, about the life of Brian Wilson. love and mercy poster Younger readers can probably be forgiven for not being entirely sure who Brian Wilson is, I suppose, for all that they’ve probably grown up listening to his music, along with everyone else under the age of 50. Wilson is most celebrated as the creative force behind the Californian rock group the Beach Boys, overseeing the production of many of their most famous records: I Get Around, California Girls, Surfin’ USA, and many more. Alongside the story of ceaseless invention and boundless talent, however, is one of deep psychological problems and personal turmoil, with the effects of a troubled upbringing only exacerbated by a prodigious pharmaceutical intake and exploitation by some fairly unsavoury individuals.

Wow, it does sound like the Amy Winehouse story, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s better to say that this is one of those tragedies which endlessly replays itself in new settings and with new characters. At least this particular iteration has (spoiler alert) a happier ending than many. The film focuses on two periods of Wilson’s life, and Pohlad has taken the fairly bold step of casting two different (and, it must be said, quite physically dissimilar) actors as Wilson. The younger Brian of the 1960s is portrayed by Paul Dano. This element of the film opens with Wilson retiring from touring with the rest of the band and going into the studio to work on ideas for the album that would eventually become Pet Sounds (now generally accepted as his magnum opus). His interest in pursuing his own creative ideas leads to tension with the rest of the group, however, and being introduced to LSD does not help his mental state much, either.

The other section of the film picks up the story over twenty years later (dates are not given on-screen, but apparently the later section occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Elizabeth Banks (one of those actors it seems I’ve been watching in different things for years without it ever actually registering) plays Melinda Leadbetter, a car saleswoman who encounters a troubled and fragile older Brian Wilson (John Cusack). The two hit it off, but she quickly comes to realise that Brian is now firmly in the grip of his psychiatrist/manager, Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who insists on controlling every aspect of his life. Even as she realises the depth of her feelings for him, she is forced to ask herself whether she is motivated by a genuine desire to help, or if she’s just another person who wants to take something from him?

Dano and Cusack are billed as Brian-Past and Brian-Future respectively, which sounds odd until you learn that early versions of the script featured a third Brian from the 1970s: the period in which Wilson famously once spent several years without really getting out of bed (apparently Philip Seymour Hoffman was at once point considered for Brian-Present). I’m not entirely surprised this segment was dropped, and what I suppose we must call Wilson’s most troubled years remain the dark heart of the film, never really explored, but always lying ahead of his younger self and overshadowing his latterday life.

Pohlad does a good job of making a cohesive film out of a narrative which thus has a hole in the middle of it to some extent, and more than that is made up of two quite different stories. The 1960s stuff with Dano is reasonably standard musical-hero bio-pic material – darker elements of their background are tastefully touched upon (in this case, Wilson’s abusive relationship with his father, whose credentials as a hostile figure are established when he opines that the lyrics to God Only Knows sound ‘more like a suicide note than a love song’), the creation of a revered classic is dwelt upon in some detail, and there’s the slightly clunky device where a supporting character goes out of their way to tell said musical hero just how innovative and brilliant they are. But Dano’s performance is customarily good and it did make me want to go and find out more about Wilson and the Beach Boys.

The 80s and 90s material is a rather different kettle of fish. John Cusack is, well, John Cusack, so you know you’re not going to see something awful, but I found his performance to be just a little bit mannered: and Dano is so effortlessly convincing as the younger Wilson that it’s Cusack you feel inclined to criticise when the two performances don’t quite join up to form a seamless whole. He’s not even playing the lead role, though, as this is much more the story of Melinda Leadbetter and her relationship with Wilson – the film shies away from using someone with such pronounced mental problems as a viewpoint character. Nevertheless, Banks is very good, and Paul Giamatti is not afraid to be horrible as Gene Landy (again like the Winehouse movie, I bet there were pre-screenings of this film attended by battallions of lawyers scrutinising it for actionable material).

And, above all, there is something genuinely affecting about this story and the redemptive effect that Leadbetter had on Wilson: spoilers again, but the two have been married for twenty years, and while the Brian Wilson who occasionally pops up on tour sometimes seems like a slightly detached and awkward figure, he still seems to be in much better shape than he would have been without Leadbetter’s intervention in his life. So this is a story that deserves to be told – celebrated, in fact. Love & Mercy veers between the experimental and the routine too often to be a genuinely great movie, but it’s certainly not a bad one.

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When you go to the cinema as often as I do, one of the resulting perks is that your accumulated loyalty points earn you a free ticket that little bit more often. This brings with it an important philosophical question – namely, is it more satisfying when your free ticket takes you in to see a truly great movie, meaning you’ve had a fantastic time gratis? Or is it better when the freebie turns out to be for a complete yapper, meaning you at least haven’t had to pay to watch a really bad film?


Which brings us to Brad Peyton’s San Andreas, the most recent film I managed to snag a free ticket for. Now, while Spanish-speaking readers may be wondering if this is a film about a golf course outside Edinburgh, most other people will rightly assume this is going to be a story concerning earthquakes and how best to prosper during and immediately after them. San Andreas‘ top tip seems to be ‘find something sturdy and hang onto it’, which is probably why it stars Dwayne Johnson, surely the – er – sturdiest leading man in Hollywood. Sometimes he’s so sturdy he’s practically immobile.

Anyway, this time round Dwayne plays Ray Gaines, an enormous rescue helicopter pilot working for the LA fire department, following an illustrious career in Afghanistan (etc, etc). However, Dwayne is struggling with some personal angst, which has led to his wife (Carla Gugino) filing divorce papers and planning to shack up with a rich but worthless property tycoon who you just know is going to let everybody down quite badly when the crunch arrives (Ioan Gruffudd). Now, you and I both know that when someone gets sent divorce papers at the start of a film, this is a flag to the effect that the film is going to be about their reconciliation and a second chance for their family, and so it proves here: there are a lot of special effects and things going bang (crash, crunch, tinkle, etc) in San Andreas, but the main thrust of the film is ultimately about Dwayne and his wife getting back together, not to mention his comely daughter (Alexandra Daddario) finding a nicely non-threatening boyfriend. It just so happens that the piquant backdrop to all this is one of colossal devastation with nameless other characters being mown down horribly by the truckload – but as they have no connection to the Rock family, we are encouraged not to care about them, rather to just enjoy the spectacle of their lovingly-rendered deaths.

Off in another section of the film entirely, Paul Giamatti plays a seismic boffin who is responsible for this film’s Gravitas Provision Department. Giamatti spends a lot of time looking grave and professorial before one of his young assistants bursts in and shouts ‘Sir, you’ve got to see this!’ about something. This is invariably followed by Giamatti looking pop-eyed with concern and crying ‘People have to be warned!’ before hiding under a table. This stuff has no connection with the Rock family’s various travails, it’s just here to provide context and some sort of bafflegab explanation for why most of California now seems to be sliding into the sea. (Giamatti gives a decent performance in the circumstances, by the way.)

Or, to put it another way, this is another Roland Emmerich disaster movie pastiche. Emmerich has never been a particularly lauded or cool director, but in films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, he did at least manage to reinvent the disaster movie formula in a way that had a certain lightness of touch and tongue-in-cheek quality, and while those films may have been cheesy and absurd, they were also very entertaining. San Andreas is just grindingly earnest and more than a bit annoying as a result.

You find yourself noticing things like the way the Rock family cheerfully loot everything in sight – boats, cars, shops, planes, fire appliances – and questioning the film’s assumption that it’s perfectly acceptable for a hugely experienced First Responder to basically walk out on his duties and put his family’s interests ahead of those of the public he’s actually supposed to be serving. If the film acknowledged even slightly how improbable and laboured (and yet also, somehow, obvious) its plotting was, that might make it more acceptable: but it doesn’t, which somehow makes it worse.

San Andreas is a classically modern movie in that the whole enterprise is built around lavish special effects the like of which didn’t exist even twenty-five years ago. Back in ye olden days, films couldn’t just rely on empty CGI spectacle, and so they had to worry about things like engaging characters, innovative plots and interesting dialogue. What San Andreas repeatedly proves is that you can have all the wibbly-wobbly skyscrapers, burning buildings, collapsing bridges, and Kylie Minogue cameos you want, but if you use them as a subsitute for those old-fashioned narrative virtues rather than a supplement to them, you’re going to end up with something which is pretty to look at but ultimately rather uninvolving (this happens in the first few minutes, when a character we barely know has a spectacular, visually striking car crash and you find yourself thinking ‘Why should I care, particularly?’).

Give the Rock some credit, he takes a fair swing at some of the more emotional moments in the script, and the results are not exactly painful to watch. I expect most of the people involved in this film will work again, because it will probably make money: this film most likely scrapes into the ‘too big to fail’ category. But the story just isn’t good enough – it’s predictable and silly from the first scene to the last. Watching horrific natural disasters shouldn’t be fun, but somehow it is when watching a well-done disaster movie. This isn’t a well-done disaster movie, nor is it very much fun.

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Having just discussed Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, I was half-expecting The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney, to have Soderbergh involved with it in some capacity as well. The two have, after all, a lot of history together, most notably with Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, but also with less commercial movies such as Solaris. But no, Clooney and Soderbergh appear to have parted company (amicably one hopes), and the only noticeable crossover of personnel between Contagion and The Ides of March is the presence of Jennifer Ehle, who plays a small but significant role in both films.

In addition to co-producing, co-writing, and directing the movie, George Clooney also appears as Mike Morris – not the former UK breakfast TV host, nor indeed the peerless Doctor Who critic and commentator, but a Democratic candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. Morris is looking good for the White House (and it must be said that Clooney is supremely plausible in the role). This is partly due to his strong team, which is led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps even more crucial is the presence of brilliant media analyst and political operator Steve Meyers, who is the main character of the story. Meyers is played by Ryan Gosling (who’s having a pretty good few months, what with this and that movie about driving where he plays the driver who drives a lot, the name of which escapes me).

Morris’ candidacy for the Presidency is looking as assured as something of that nature can, but a crucial primary is looming (on the date of the title). Then Meyers is startled to receive a job offer from their chief opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), his relationship with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) unexpectedly brings a shocking secret to light, and as the polls unexpectedly start to shift against them Morris’ refusal to engage in the traditional political horse-trading begins to look naive rather than principled. With all his certainties crumbling Meyer is forced to ask himself exactly what his true priorities are…

Fans of The West Wing should run to see The Ides of March (possibly carrying on a complex dialogue with each other as they go), as this film operates in a very similar narrative space – the dialogue doesn’t crackle quite as much as Aaron Sorkin’s, but the dizzyingly swift pace, convoluted plot and strong characterisations should all seem very familiar. That said, there’s another sense in which this is a very different kind of story indeed – there was something almost Capraesque about The West Wing’s wide-eyed positivity about the political system and the people who work in it: no-one was really self-serving or anything but a very decent human being. The Ides of March starts off in a broadly similar vein , but the story of the film is the story of masks slipping in extremis and the true nature of the characters becoming clear: and I tell you, folks, it ain’t pretty.

That said, the film takes care not to get too worked up about this – from the very first scene, it’s made clear that for all his idealism, Meyers is a ruthless operator not above playing dirty (in a mild sort of way). On the other hand, for a film with – to put it mildly – a somewhat cynical view of the political animal, it’s notable that The Ides of March doesn’t actually have a villain. Giamatti’s character is just a little more obviously ruthless and goal-oriented than the rest.

As a British viewer I obviously watched this with a certain sense of detachment, but enough of the story is universal in nature for it to remain a very satisfying film. I wonder why we in this country can’t produce similarly satisfying political dramas more consistently? It can’t all be down to American hegemony. Perhaps the very nature of the American system lends itself more readily to this kind of narrative intensity.         

One of the stories doing the rounds about this film is that Clooney and company first started work on it in 2008, but basically parked the project as they realised their audience wouldn’t be interested in such a jaded view of politicians in the year of Obama. Putting aside the question of why they’ve decided to make it now, it seems to me that this is another movie springing from the Clinton era. You may recall a number of key films from the mid-to-late 90s which cast the President of the US in such unlikely roles as romantic lead, gritty terrorist-basher, and jet-piloting alien exterminator, all surely products of the enormous positivity of key Hollywood figures towards Bill Clinton. Fifteen years on, here is a movie – not the first of its kind, of course – which concentrates on the darker side. Quite how many personal foibles are we prepared to overlook, if the right candidate comes along? Can a principled man really succeed in modern politics? We’re left to decide for ourselves how much of Morris’ persona is an act – Clooney has less screen time than you may be expecting.

That said, he’s very good whenever he does appear, as is everyone else: this is a very strongly-written and uniformly well-played drama, which grips from the start and has some very powerful and moving moments along the way – along with a few lighter moments, of course. Overall it’s an impressive package. If, like Contagion, it ultimately seems to be lamenting things which lie beyond anyone’s power to change, then so be it – sometimes it’s for the best that we remind ourselves of uncomfortable truths, especially if in doing means making movies as good as this one.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  September 4th 2003:

It’s usually a pretty good sign of a film’s success, both creatively and financially, if, within a year or two of its release knock-offs, pastiches and wannabes suddenly flood the multiplexes across the land. Most of the real mega-hits spawn their clouds of (usually) inferior clones, but one film I didn’t expect to trigger the same response was last year’s Ocean’s Eleven. A very slick, funny, stylish and entertaining film, to be sure, and one which I very much enjoyed, but not one I would’ve predicted as starting a trend.

Well, who’d’ve guessed it, but I was wrong again. Admittedly there haven’t been that many Ocean’s Eleven knock-offs, but they all indelibly bear the imprimatur of their inspiration, and James Foley’s Confidence is no exception, although one could equally well argue it owes debts to The Usual Suspects, Heat, and – inevitably – Tarantino.

Ed Burns plays Jake Vig, leader of a crack team of con-men working in Los Angeles. Their usual routine is polished and effective, until they unwittingly take the money of local nasty-piece-of-work the King, played by Dustin Hoffman. Dustin is understandably irked by this impudence and offs one of the team, prompting Jake to cut a deal: Jake and the gang will take Dustin’s rival Morgan Price (Robert Forster, woefully underused) for five million dollars and split the proceeds with him, thus settling their financial differences if nothing else. Supposedly to help with the job, but I suspect mainly because it’s a novel chat-up line, Jake also recruits raven-tressed pickpocket Lily (lovely lovely Rachel Weisz). And the stage is set for… well, dullness and confusion, actually.

This is mainly down to the writing, as you might expect. Writer Doug Jung apparently has some background in TV, but this is his first feature script and it kind of shows. Without wishing to be too unkind – some of the dialogue has a certain snap and crackle to it – I get the impression he really wished he’d written Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, etc, and decided to go ahead and kind of do so anyway. The tricky flashback structure, the multiple twists and use of cut-scenes, the occasional stylistic flourishes – we’ve really seen all of them before elsewhere.

Even so, lack of originality isn’t necessarily a sin. But this kind of caper movie should have a kind of swashbuckling flair to it, and be all about false moustaches and forged paintings and breaking into bank vaults by unlikely means. Confidence‘s big scam revolves around… wait for it… corporate law and procuring an iffy bank loan. That’s it, that’s the great challenge facing these characters. Jung tries to liven things up by stirring in subplots about Jake being chased by a vengeful federal agent (a grizzled-looking Andy Garcia) and Lily selling him out to his intended victim, but it really doesn’t help, because the script is fundamentally flawed. Some of the flashbacks actually happen, others are – in the context of the film – fictitious, but it’s not made clear which are which. The way the Garcia subplot is resolved basically reveals, if you think about it, that Jake is a really nasty piece of work. The obligatory twist ending is also actually sort of predictable.

However, a film isn’t just the work of the writer. Jake is clearly written as cool, commanding, charismatic, a combination of Clooney and de Niro. So it’s really a shame that Burns turns in a performance like Ben Affleck on valium, charmless and static. Paul Giamatti, as his neurotic sidekick, is really much more likeable and interesting. Rachel Weisz’s role is almost entirely decorative, not that I’m complaining too loudly (but they make her dye her hair red, for heaven’s sake!). The acting honours are undoubtedly stolen by Dustin Hoffman, playing a scabrous rodent of a man, capricious and weirdly menacing and possessed of a highly eccentric code of ethics (he gets to cop a feel of Weisz as well, as fine an incentive to take a part as any I can think of). As the film goes on he gets less and less to do, however.

As well as Hoffman, in its favour the film is reasonably well directed and the cinematography is excellent, grainy, vivid colours giving it a kind of neon-noir feel. The eclectic soundtrack is also something a plus, but on the whole this is very run-of-the-mill stuff, lacking originality and clarity. Confidence does not get my vote.

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