Tag Archives: Paul Giamatti

Morgan (2016)

Just about every year, there are a couple of movie releases that will take me by surprise. They kind of popped up out of nowhere, with no buzz or early trailers, but feature a cast of big Hollywood names. Morgan is one such film.

The first time I actually saw snippets of the Morgan trailer and poster was actually the weekend before its release. I had never heard of it and couldn’t believe it when I found out that it starred the likes of Kate Mara, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook (soon to be seen as the main villain in Logan), and Anya Taylor-Joy (who was absolutely brilliant in The Witch).

The poster seemed intriguing as well, dominated by a dark, hooded figure I could only presume was the eponymous protagonist (or antagonist, if you will). The trailer gave away wait too much as usual, but essentially, Kate Mara plays some sort of risk assessment manager who ventures into a secluded research facility that managed to genetically engineer a synthetic human being, ie Morgan (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). Pretty much everyone else in the cast is a scientist or a handler of some sort.

I was definitely intrigued. It seemed like a thinking person’s horror movie, with elements of Ex Machina and shades of the underrated Splice. Yes, it is yet another one of those “man should not mess with nature” or “living creatures should not be kept in captivity” cautionary tales, but the fact that such a great cast had faith in the project suggested to me that it would be worth watching.

Well, I was about half right. Morgan turned out to be borderline watchable. What started off as a compelling premise and some early tension soon crumbled into predictability and genre tropes. We all know Morgan’s not as innocent as she seems and that she will get out of her glass box eventually. But instead of pursuing the more interesting and thought-provoking opportunities the premise offers, Luke Scott, the son of legendary director Ridley (who produced the film), chose to indulge in the usual slasher and horror cliches. The action isn’t handled too shabbily, though it would be a stretch to call it outstanding. Same goes for the horror elements — Morgan (both the character and the film itself) never really scared me.

At some point in the movie, it also became impossible to not guess the “twist” at the end. It’s just so obvious and telegraphed that when it is finally revealed there is no sense of shock whatsoever.

Still, I have to be fair. Morgan is still at least serviceable and better than most of the straight-to-DVD horror-thrillers these days. The initial set-up is interesting, I’ll give it that, and the execution — whether it is the action, tension, or horror — is passable. Throw in a star-studded cast who genuinely seemed to put in effort rather than mail it in for a paycheck, and you end up with a movie that isn’t a complete waste of time but could have been so much better.

2.5 stars out of 5

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Straight_Outta_Compton_poster

You know you’re not the target market for this movie when your idea of rap is Vanilla Ice. I knew nothing about the Californian hip hop group NWA or their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, from which the film borrows its title. I knew vaguely about Dr Dre (primarily through Eminem) and I thought Ice Cube was mostly known for being the porky fella in crap movies like XXX: State of the Union and Ride Along.

And so it surprises me to say that I absolutely loved Straight Outta Compton.  I think it’s one of the most fascinating and gripping dramas I’ve seen all year.

For those as ignorant as me, the film tells the remarkable true story of a bunch of poor black kids from Compton, California who rise to become one of the first and certainly most influential gangsta rap groups of the late-80s to the mid-90s. Since it’s produced by Ice Cube and Dr Dre, the film largely focuses on the two of them (played by Ice Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr and The Walking Dead‘s Corey Hawkins) along with the popular Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), while other members such as DJ Yella and MC Ren are largely left in the background and Arabian Prince is controversially ignored nearly altogether.

Other key characters include their Jewish manager, Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti), and Dr Dre’s Death Row Records co-founder Suge Knight (R Marcos Taylor), who has incidentally been charged with murder and attempted murder following an altercation with two men on the set of the film earlier this year. You’ll also see young versions of Snoop Dogg  (Keith Stanfield), Tupac (Marcc Rose), Warren G  (Sheldon A Smith), and so forth, which for some fans will be pretty cool.

As expected, race plays a central theme in the film, and it’s mostly controlled with a strong but delicate hand that neither understates nor overstates its importance. Those who know NWA will be familiar with their controversial songs and lyrics and the way they reflected black attitudes and shaped black culture at the time. Real-life events such as the Rodney King beating are also prominently featured to give a gritty sense of time and place.

However, the heart of the film — and what makes it so compelling — is ultimately the relationships between the members of the group (and to a lesser extent their relationship with Heller). It’s depicted as a genuine brotherhood, albeit one that grows full of conflict as they each deal with their ascensions to stardom in different ways. Kudos to director F Gary Gray (The Negotiator, The Italian Job remake) and actors for making the characters really stand out, having their own unique personalities but also that common thread of the sobering reality of being a young black man in the United States.

I must admit — with the risk of coming off as a complete racist — that at the beginning of the movie I was having trouble telling characters apart because they were all wearing the same black caps and speaking the same way, though it didn’t take long for their individual traits to shine through. That’s the sign of good filmmaking.

With no prior knowledge of their history or story, I was captivated by their journey, as well as the underlying political strife and the murky dynamics of record companies. Many of the issues tackled in the film — such as police profiling and brutality, freedom of speech vs inciting unrest, and the dark side of the music industry — remain pertinent today.

Now, I took their story, as depicted in the film, with a grain of salt. Any time you have a biographical film, especially with stars producing a film about their younger selves — you’re probably getting a highly glamourised version of the tale with the uglier truths glossed over. I knew that was probably the case here, even before I read about the complaints on how certain characters’ roles with diminished, how some people were unhappy with the way they were portrayed (Heller is suing), and the inevitable accusations of misogyny.

While I have no doubt that most of these criticisms have elements of truth, I think the filmmakers still did a great job given the circumstances. There is only so much you can cram into a 147-minute movie with so many characters over so many years. Taking into account that two of the producers are actually in the film, and that liberties have to be taken to make the story more exciting and cinematic, Straight Outta Compton turned out to be much more even-handed than I was expecting. Dr Dre’s Image was probably cleaned up a little bit more, though it’s good to see Ice Cube not having a problem with seeing himself doing some things that perhaps don’t reflect on him too well (and getting his son to reenact them!).

In all, Straight Outta Compton is a fabulously fascinating biopic, full of energy and drama but without the cheesiness and the cliched atmosphere this type of film would have been plagued with in lesser hands. Apart from a cast of actors who resemble their real-life counterparts, it’s powered by strong, memorable performances that never feels short of chemistry between them. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I am now a fan of NWA or their music, but I definitely have no problem saying that I am a big fan of the movie. It’s perhaps not as powerful as some, though it certainly is one of the most watchable and entertaining biopics I’ve seen in years.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Ides of March (2011)

I really need to get a move on.  It’s almost the end of 2011 and there are too many potentially good movies to be watched before 2012.  And so I began my (hopeful) end-of-year movie blitz with a 2012 Oscar frontrunner, The Ides of March, directed by, co-written by and starring George Clooney.

I’m a sucker for political dramas (I thought the 1998 John Travolta film Primary Colors was fantastic), and so I had high hopes for this film, which also stars some of my favourite actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei.  However, The Ides of March really belongs to Ryan Gosling, who continues to impress with a controlled, Oscar-worthy performance as Stephen Meyers, a junior campaign manager for Clooney’s (potential) Democratic presidential candidate, Mike Morris.

Without giving away too much, the film follows the young, bright and extremely capable Meyers as he tries to assist Pennsylvania Governor Morris in securing the state of Ohio in the Democrat’s presidential candidate race against an Arkansas Senator.  Securing Ohio effectively clinches the nomination (and essentially the White House), so it’s a big deal, but both Meyers and Morris are idealists who want to run the race with integrity and without compromising their values.  However, as they both find out throughout the course of the film, politics is a dirty game where the lines and boundaries and continually being pushed and blurred.  To what extremes will they go in order to get what they want?

I won’t divulge more than that except to say that The Ides of March is, at its core, a somewhat cynical political tale about the loss of innocence.  It begins slowly and is what some would call a slow burner, so it won’t be for everyone.  But I enjoyed every minute of it.  Apart from giving viewers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into the shady deals, compromises and grey areas in these political processes — daily battles with competitors, internal power struggles, schmoozing journalists and smoothing out scandals — the stylish intensity that underlies the film from start to finish really elevates this otherwise unremarkable story (if you think about it)  to one of the best dramas of the year.

The perfect performances from the awesome cast must receive a significant chunk of the credit.  Gosling has already been nominated once (for Half Nelson in 2006), and this could be the year he takes out Best Actor at the Oscars.  Clooney (Syriana), Hoffman (Capote) and Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) are all Oscar winners and Giamatti is a multiple nominee, and each brings a touch of class to their character — all of whom possess a different side to what is originally presented.  And Evan Rachel Wood, who has a key role as a Morris campaign intern, is surprisingly good and steals a lot of scenes (no mean feat considering the company).

The Ides of March is a clever, well-executed drama with impeccable performances.  It’s probably not for the casual filmgoer looking for light, fast-paced thrills, but I think lovers of (American) politics and serious dramas will thoroughly enjoy it.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Barney’s Version (2010)

A bit of a delay in this review, but I guess better late than never.  I wasn’t quite sure going in what to expect from Barney’s Version, a drama starring Paul Giamatti as a man who, based on the snippets from the trailer, likes his ladies.  That was pretty much all I knew.

Well, I admit I was surprisingly impressed with Barney’s Version by the time the credits rolled.  Based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version is a crafty, captivating film bolstered by some superb performances.  Paul Giamatti is brilliant as Barney Panofsky, an unlikely ladies’ man who recalls his unusual and highly interesting life through various flashbacks dating back to the 1970s.  I won’t say much more about the plot because it’s the type of film where you don’t really know where it’s heading but you just go along for the ride.  There’s lust, romance, friendship, betrayal and an intriguing mystery too, ensuring that there’s hardly a dull moment in the lengthy 132 minute running time.

What surprised me about Barney’s Version is that I enjoyed the film despite the immensely flawed and unlikable protagonist.  Barney is a fascinating character but he’s a complete douche no matter which way you look at it.  Nonetheless, Giamatti’s performance makes Barney human and almost sympathetic at times.  I was shocked to discover that I was actually touched by Barney’s story towards the end.

Of course, it’s not all Giamatti (who won a Golden Globe for his performance).  The supporting cast was also amazing and it is a travesty that not more acting nominations were garnered.  Dustin Hoffman was a standout as Barney’s father.  Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Scott Speedman and Bruce Greenwood were also fantastic in their respective roles.

I understand some of the complaints about the film — that Barney was too much of a prick for the film to be enjoyable, that Giamatti was too fat and ugly to attract such pretty ladies, that it was misogynistic, etc etc — but I think they are missing the point.  For starters, the film is called “Barney’s” Version for a reason, and although the format doesn’t quite capture the ‘unreliable narrator’ of the book as well as I thought it should have, this was Barney’s story from his perspective and his memory.  Besides, there are far less attractive men with more attractive women in the real world, and in any case, I personally thought Giamatti’s persistence and zest for life did give him a peculiar charm (but hey, what would I know?).

Ultimately, I found Barney’s Version to be a lovely film about the ups and downs of life and its moments.  It’s not perfect but it’s one film I’ll likely remember years down the track.

4 stars out of 5