Tag: paul giamatti

Private Life

Private Life (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

A subtle and thematically complex comedy-drama, Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” is the kind of picture that offers an honest look at how it might be like to face hardships of trying to get pregnant when a couple is on the verge of infertility. Deeply humanistic at its core, it is amazing how one scene can start off quite funny but readily able to turn quite sad within a beat or two, only to end up lighthearted again when, for example, someone makes an awkward remark in order to alleviate the tension of a situation. Because of its ability to draw us in emotionally, often playing with our own emotions in regards to what the couple deserves versus reality and probability, the personal story in front of us is wildly entertaining, led by performers who are able to communicate plenty without saying a word.

The central couple is Rachel and Richard, played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, both in their forties, who have, for years, been on an obsessive quest to have a baby. It appears they have tried nearly everything: fertility treatments, in vitro fertilization, adoption… some of them more than once. These cost a lot of money and all have led to failure thus far.

Hahn and Giamatti are at the top of their game when the couple, finally, expresses their frustrations with one another. For instance, in a more dramatic confrontation, their younger selves are brought up, how one’s career-driven mindset has allowed time to pass and overlook an aspect of life that they now consider to be important. In a more comedic moment, on the other hand, Richard’s single testicle is referenced. There is an amusing bit about soda machines and what happens when it doesn’t quite function as it should. This captures the material’s interest in showing the lighter and darker sides of the couple’s conception troubles.

I admired that the film is not afraid to show cabinets full of drugs, routine injections, how it hurts, puncture marks on skin—even its color—after repeated shots, the waiting room and the lack of joy in there, how it can be an impersonal experience when meeting with a doctor, how patients are sometimes treated like cattle. I loved that the images are not like in more commercial films where everyone is smiling or peppy during an appointment. People look tired, frustrated, like they just want to get the whole thing over with. Should one look closely enough, it is these bits of reality that set this comedy-drama apart from its contemporaries.

There are truly heartbreaking moments because the central couple is good, generally happy, and have shown, through their interactions with Sadie (Kayli Carter), Richard’s niece who has recently dropped out of college (she claims the university has allowed her to complete her degree while in absentia—is that a thing?), that they are partners capable of raising a happy child in a happy home. They don’t deserve the misfortunes and sometimes downright cruelty of some individuals they became involved with. But then again, that’s life. Sometimes things just don’t work out. We cannot help but remain hopeful, however. It is because the screenplay welcomes us to recognize bits of ourselves in Rachel and Richard.

“Private Life” is for an empathetic audience. Here is a film that tasks us to watch closely as the couple reaches the end of their rope of trying to have kid. It is fascinating to watch unfold not because there are plenty of life-altering events but exactly because the subjects have reached a plateau. I think the writer-director wishes to communicate that there is beauty in the every day. The final scene is fitting in that it dares to measure, or simply just remind us, how we perceive life thus far.

The Phenom

The Phenom (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those expecting a standard feel-good sports comedy-drama are going to be disappointed with “The Phenom,” written and directed by Noah Buschel, an efficient and haunting character study of a young baseball pitcher whose blossoming career is suddenly endangered because his abusive past has begun to consume him whole. The film is written and shot with great intelligence, insight, a balance of perspicuity and mystery, and humanity from top to bottom, a rarity in the current landscape of the movies where spectacle is valued more often than reality.

Notice the stunning use of silence. Mainstream works are prone to employing soundtrack between moments and even during conversations at times in order to hint at what the character might be feeling or thinking. Here, silence is utilized to highlight the story’s melancholic fog, that even though Hopper (Johnny Simmons) is making millions as an athlete, a dream or goal for many people, he is severely unhappy and no one is genuinely happy for his success. In one way or another, he is envied, especially by his father, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who lives vicariously and damagingly through his son’s golden arm.

Hawke is a highly likable and charming performer, and he presents a sympathetic monster here. From the first instance where father and son share a scene and interact, we learn quickly the level of control senior has over junior. When the son is not being insulted, he is being threatened, oftentimes in the form of physical threats but the psychological beatings are equally unbearable and maddening. Hawke and Simmons share excellent chemistry, believable as father and son, predator and prey.

The story has two hearts and both are handled with vitality and a sense of yearning. The first involves Hopper and a sport psychiatrist. Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) attempts to untangle his patient from the vines of depression, inertia, and lack of self-worth. But their exchanges are not inspirational is such a way where the doctor says one line and the patient finds his light out of the blue. It is a process and I appreciated that the screenplay never surrenders to or reduces itself so it could fit into the pitfalls of Movie Psychology 101. Instead, the relationship is, for the most part, built upon the rhythms, beats, and faint pulses of exchanges rather than through what is being outwardly expressed.

The second involves Hopper and a girl named Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Park), a girl from high school who he liked but messed it up terribly before moving onto professional baseball. A few years ago, there was a movie called “The Spectacular Now,” directed by James Ponsoldt, in which it told the story of two teenagers finding a kind of love in one another. It treated its characters with respect without sacrificing an ounce of complexity. There are elements of that picture here which I found beautiful and craved to see more of.

There are no big games. No inspirational speeches. Not even a scene where the main character flicks a switch in his mind and works hard to turn everything around. It offers instead a final scene where the son is willing to face his father at his worst. And Hopper Jr. is not afraid, not even remotely ashamed of his old man. Some may quickly and foolishly label the scene as depressing. I found it to be deeply humanistic and optimistic. Notice there is no silence between them—at least not the kind that cripples, torments, nor poses a threat. And sometimes that’s enough of a first step toward a better tomorrow.

San Andreas

San Andreas (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

There are two major elements that determine whether a disaster flick is successful. First is whether the special and visual effects coupled with sound effects force us to have a visceral response—an out-of-body experience, if you will, while watching the picture unfold. Second, whether the characters that we follow are creative, resourceful, strong, or smart enough to make their way out of prickly or downright unlucky situations. It is very necessary that they justify making it all the way to the end. No one wants to see a weak or unlikable character make it through the incredible trials.

“San Andreas” then, based on the screenplay by Carlton Cuse and directed by Brad Peyton, is a successful disaster film. It is entertaining, has some moments of humor, and is genuinely terrifying once the ground begins to shake relentlessly. It is limited, however, by too many conversations during the middle section between a couple (Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino) on the verge of signing the divorce papers. Right from their first interaction during the first act, we are able to tell immediately that they still have remaining feelings for one another. If they had been written more sharply, with more differing thoughts in their minds, these exchanges might have been necessary. Alas, it is not a character-driven picture—and it does not need to be.

The action pieces are stunning. The first earthquake in Nevada, as we follow two seismologists (Paul Giamatti, Will Yun Lee) on the precipice of making a potentially game-changing discovery, is very nicely executed. The camera is active, the score is carefully modulated, and one can believe the two performers as genuine scientists who work at Cal Tech. Giamatti is not a stranger to playing somewhat eccentric, really smart, ordinary-looking men but he surprised me here. When he looks directly to camera, I felt that his character really cared about the people about to lose their lives in the series of massive quakes—“the swarm effect.” With the few scenes he is given, he is able to inject some heart, as well as a bit of camp, into the science of tectonic shifts.

Most central is the annihilation of San Francisco Bay Area. The aforementioned couple’s daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) meets two British brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson) prior to the first earthquake in the city and they team up eventually in order to survive. They are young and a romantic connection is established so one might expect that this strand of the story would be at least somewhat annoying.

It is a breath of fresh air that it isn’t. The key, I think, is that there is a sweetness in the relationship between the brothers and also a sweetness between the eldest and Blake. It would have been so easy to make the brothers be somewhat combative or embarrassed by one another. Instead, there is a real bond to them that is relatable without being sitcom-like or boring. I would have liked to have seen more threats toward the well-being of all three because when one ended up injured or on the verge of dying, I found myself wondering if he or she could make it—and if they did somehow then I wondered how much further.

Although “San Andreas” does not redefine the sub-genre, it has a lot to offer when it comes to entertainment value. Appropriately, it is highly driven by astonishing visuals and sound work that really puts the viewer into the situation. Test this by closing your eyes for a few seconds when an earthquake is unfolding. Lastly, compare the performances here against lesser modern disaster flicks and one can really notice the difference. Thus, what we have here is a piece of work that can hold its own against similar movies released during the 1970s, the golden age of disaster films.

Safe Men

Safe Men (1998)
★ / ★★★★

Sam (Sam Rockwell) and Eddie (Steve Zahn) fancy themselves as singer-songwriters, but they are unable to entertain a bar packed with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age. When Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti), the right hand man of one of the Jewish gangsters in Rhode Island, has mistaken them for legendary safe crackers, they find themselves in a quandary: perform the job that Big Fat Bernie Gayle (Michael Lerner) wants done or get swim with the fishes.

“Safe Men,” written and directed by John Hamburg, is a farce that uses the lead actors’ chemistry as a crutch whenever the jokes miss the mark. And, boy, does it miss quite often. When the jokes work, however, I found myself smiling from ear to ear. Still, the ratio between unfunny to funny bits is far too large.

A standout is a scene involving the first safe that the hapless duo attempts to break into which happens to belong to another Jewish gangster, Leo (Harvey Fierstein), who runs a fencing operation behind a barbershop. Completely inept and constantly at each other’s throats about how certain things ought to be done, Sam and Eddie are caught by Hannah (Christina Kirk), Leo’s daughter. The funny thing is since she has a history of dating thieves, she does a surprising thing.

When the screenplay plays with our expectations combined with providing us a skeletal understanding of the motivations of characters who are about to commit bizarre actions, watching the interplay among the characters is fun and entertaining.

There are too many recycled ideas that distract from the plot. Frank (Mark Ruffalo) and Mitchell (Josh Pais), the real safe men, drop in and out of the story whenever it seems convenient. When they do show up, they act like baboons half the time and the script never bothers to convince us that they are smart and stealthy, two basic requirements, I would imagine, in being successful thieves. Maybe it would have been funnier if Frank and Mitchell had been completely different from Sam and Eddie instead of just playing a diluted version of them.

More frustrating is Giamatti not given a lot to do. I actually felt him wanting to be more challenged. The screenplay touches upon his character wanting to be treated like his boss valued him more. Once or twice there is a funny line or two about his line of work but there is not a time when we are given a chance to actually consider Veal Chop as more than a henchman. One serious moment might have given the character a semblance of dimension. If we were to ultimately believe his insecurities, we had to see him as a person.

Finally, the romance between Sam and Hannah is is not at all convincing. The way material likes to remind us they are a couple is showing a sloppy make-out session. It’s supposed to be funny. Why not just allow us to continually observe the sexual tension between Sam and Eddie grow until it is unbearable?

It is a shame that the writing is so bland and unfocused because Rockwell and Zahn seem willing to go to the extremes. For all the risks that “Safe Men” appears to take on the surface, what results is still a flavorless concoction of inanities.

The Ides of March

The Ides of March (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic thirty-year-old campaign manager, working right below a powerful senior campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is hired to help Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) win the state of Ohio and secure a presidential nomination.

Recognizing Stephen’s suave confidence and talent for spinning stories, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the opposition’s senior campaign manager, gives him a call and suggests they meet in private: Tom wants to offer Stephen a job, one that he should accept because Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) is ready to give them his endorsement which means a certain victory for Senator Pullman (Michael Mantrell) and a loss for Governor Morris.

Based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March” is not so much about the politics but the figureheads, seemingly impersonal and cold, that oil the machine. The center of the ruckus is Stephen and how circumstances force to open his eyes and how he learns to play dirty in order to have a career in a field that he is very passionate about.

Gosling is quite impressive in portraying Stephen, a man of ambition, drive, and a specific set of ideals. The film often reaches a creative zenith when Gosling must spar against acting titans like Giamatti and Hoffman—chameleon-like and fluid in portraying every nuance of emotion and intention. It is a tricky role because Gosling must find a way to come off as somewhat submissive due to his character’s comparable lack of experience in politics yet dangerous enough to pose as a real threat, both as an unstable ally and enemy as well as an eventual blackmailer since he has invested so much in the campaign.

Directed by George Clooney, the tension tightens when the behind-the-scenes drama is intercut with Morris’ speeches about how he intends on steering the country toward progress. While Morris’ supporters eat up his every word, there is a growing sense of unease as things start to go wrong in the campaign—slowly at first then like a landslide in strength and speed.

Although the dueling campaigns are both liberal in stance, the picture is a critique about politics as a whole. While it may seem glamorous and important, especially with all the press conferences and media coverages, the film reminds us that, at the end of the day, being a senator, a governor, a campaign manager, or an intern is still a job. And like certain jobs, the workplace can be a competitive environment where betrayal is like the common cold: it can happen to anybody and reactions to the infection tend to vary. Just because Stephen is smart, charismatic, and hardworking, it does not make him immune to the sickness.

Based on the screenplay by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March,” equipped with excellent monologues, may be interpreted as having a cynical message. Regardless, I found it fascinating—which surprised me because politics is not something that captures my interest as readily as, say, science or the movies. Experiencing the film is like closely observing a tight chess match. Some moves are easily foreseen but it has enough genuine surprises meant to inspire contemplation.

Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of the book “Mary Poppins,” is advised to close a deal with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) because she is running out of money. Though the writer realizes the difficulty of her financial situation, the story is really important to her so she cannot let go. If she does sign over her rights to Disney, it means two things: the film will be a musical and it will contain animation. She finds the idea repulsive. She believes songs and dancing penguins will take away the necessary gravity from her original work.

“Saving Mr. Banks,” written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, is as light as a feather. Although Thompson and Hanks are entertaining as a pair, the picture is not an effective comedy-drama because the dramatic elements are so syrupy to the point of indigestion. The film is divided into two time points: the novelist’s visit to Los Angeles in 1961 and her childhood in 1906 when she learns her father’s addiction to alcohol (Colin Farrell). The former, the comedy, is a joy while the latter, the drama, is bereft of energy. A lopsided picture results.

Thompson finds the right tone to make an entertaining character. Though she creates a very uptight Travers, not once does she come off mean-spirited. In fact, we can understand where she is coming from because handing over what is important to us to someone else who we fear is not as passionate or invested is often difficult. Interestingly, even though she is supposed to be the main character of the movie, most of us will find ourselves on the side of Disney and his artists without realizing why. Such is the power of branding and legacy in action.

The screenplay allowing Travers to be surrounded by merry characters is a good source of comedy. Every time she criticizes a proposed direction, an accompanying reaction shot is shown at the right time. Also, it lingers just enough to showcase their frustration, shock, or embarrassment. It becomes clear quite quickly that Travers’ approach is a dictatorship rather than a partnership. And yet when the tone shifts just a little, especially during the scenes between the writer and her driver (Paul Giamatti), it feels just right. The sensitive moments are earned.

Flashbacks to Australia ’61 are a bore. The sentimentality is just too much. Put the overwhelmed mother (Ruth Wilson—miscast and the character underwritten), alcoholic father, and a daughter’s innocence (Annie Rose Buckley) being crushed into the mix, there is a lack of uplift within the time period to balance the sad moments. At one point, a character chooses to commit suicide. I was shocked—not in a good way. What if children who love Robert Stevenson’s “Mary Poppins” end up seeing this? How is that appropriate? In my opinion, if a serious subject like suicide is brought up, it should at least be acknowledged or explained later.

Another problem, though somewhat of a lesser degree, is that I never felt as though Disney ever liked his punctilious collaborator. His gestures to convince Travers to sign the paperwork feel hollow. I suppose deals are made in real life without people having to like each other or to meet in person, but it feels a bit off here. One gets the impression that a more realistic layer is tacked on late into script development.

John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

David Wong (Chase Williamson), not Chinese despite his last name, is in a Chinese restaurant and confesses to us that he is under the influence of a drug called the Soy Sauce which enables him to count the number of grains of rice on a plate held by waitress passing by. Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a reporter, arrives and he is told that David wants to get the truth out about the world that we think we know. Initially, Arnie scoffs at himself for being foolish enough to have driven so many miles just to meet the slacker in front of him, but after David tells Arnie the amount, types, and years of the coins in his pocket, the curious reporter is more willing to entertain the idea.

Although it may sound like a most hyperbolic claim, “John Dies at the End,” based on the screenplay and directed by Don Coscarelli, summons the wild and imaginative natures of John Carpenter’s “They Live” and David Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch.” Drain the former of its social commentary about consumerism and the latter of its deep philosophical questions about the essence of reality, it becomes more apparent that this film is their hybrid, deformed baby that leaves enough room for silly, fast-talking dialogue, questions that may or may not have defined answers, and genuinely creepy situations like a character having a conversation with a friend, suddenly getting a call, and the voice on the other line happening to be that same person less than two feet away.

To critique the picture for being so random that it feels more like a bunch of sketches thrown together holds some weight. But I think it is meant to be that way. A theme that courses through the veins and arteries of the scenes is the effects–and side effects–of the black drug that characters willingly–and unwillingly–take. In a lot of movies that aim to have fun with hallucinogens, it feels too literal: bright lights, someone who is high reaching for or running away from something that is not there, the works. In here, there is a story and it is driven by ideas. The drug is used as a trampoline for the characters to explore multiple universes, times, and consciousness.

It helps that the actors who play Dave and John (Rob Mayes), the best friend, are charming. They embody a certain wide-eyed, childlike quality that is infectious. So when they are thrusted into truly bizarre situations and they are in utter amazement or disbelief of what is happening, they are relatable on some level. We are as surprised or disgusted or worried as they are. Also, even though the duo have different personalities, they share enough similarities to have a convincing friendship. I wished that one or both had been in danger more often so the strength of their bond can be felt more strongly. But that would have been an avenue for a more typical work.

I loved the cheesy special and visual effects. From a mysterious young lady suddenly turning into a pile of snakes to a giant eye that is somehow able to communicate verbally, I was tickled by a lot of them. There were times when I laughed out loud–which (I am told) does not even happen with many comedies and horror-comedies that I end up liking. It is so unpredictable that I felt like a kid on a walkthrough haunted mansion with some sections fused with a deranged amusement park.

Based on the novel by David Wong, it is a great compliment when the film inspires us to read the original work. “John Dies at the End” dares to dream. With so many movies that are tired right from the very first scene, clearly designed to steal the audience’s money and time, this one offers an alternative. It begins with a riddle. Do we get an answer eventually? I say that we do… somewhat. It is a lot of things: confusing, fun, messy, contradictory, overloaded, odd, creepy, et al. But let’s not forget: it is also an original.