Tag Archives: Paul Giamatti

The Gangsta Life

‘Straight Outta Compton’ tells the ‘real’ N.W.A. story

Straight Outta Compton

Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), Neil Brown Jr. (DJ Yella), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason MItchell (Eazy-E) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube) star in ‘Straight Outta Compton.’

 

Straight Outta Compton

Starring O’Shea Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins & Paul Giamatti

Directed by F. Gary Grey

R

Spawned from the mean streets of Compton, Calif., in the late 1980s, the controversial original “gangsta rap” act N.W.A. sent shock waves across America and spawned a commercial empire.

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren created tough, provocative, dangerous-sounding music that modeled and mirrored the harsh realities of their time and place: drugs, crime, violence, racial discrimination, police brutality. How dangerous-sounding? Well, even their name had to be muzzled (the letters stood for Niggaz With Attitude), and one of their most “popular” songs, “F— the Police,” caught the attention of the FBI.

Straight Outta Compton

Hassled by police outside a recording studio.

N.W.A.’s rags-to-riches rise from the “ghetto” of southern Los Angeles County to the top of the music world is a classic tale of ambition, vindication and escape. Their crash-and-burn breakup—into angry bits of bruised egos, bad decisions and broken, betrayed friendships—was the fractured flip side to a decade of high living, heavy partying and the huge sprawl of the musical juggernaut they’d built from scratch.

Straight Outta Compton captures that—much of it, anyway. The beats are fly, the story is nitty-gritty and the timing is spot-on, with the movie’s release coming at a moment in time when a growing movement in America pushes back, once again, against police violence against unarmed blacks.

A young cast of newcomers does a fine job portraying the group. O’Shea Jackson Jr., the son of real-life rapper Ice Cube, plays his own father, and he certainly looks the part—he’s almost a perfect clone. Jason Mitchell is electrifying as Eazy-E, the diminutive, street-hustling, dope-peddling “investor” who became the frontman of N.W.A. after hooking up with Cube and production wizard Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins).

The two other members, DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), are relegated to the sidelines, however. Maybe that’s because executive producers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the wife of the late Eazy-E were more interested in telling “their” story.

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Paul Giamatti

Paul Giamatti’s towering white swoop of a hairpiece competes for attention in his role as Jerry Heller, the manager who steered the group to stardom—and into a crooked contractual labyrinth that eventually split them apart.

The movie credits N.W.A. as the architects of hardcore, “real” street rap. But it doesn’t depict them as saints: They spew profanity, take drugs, sling guns and indulge in the orgiastic excesses that you might expect of cocky young rock gods. There are moments of humor to lighten some of the heavier moods. At two and a half hours, it gets a bit overloaded in the final stretch with plot offshoots and cameo appearances by characters playing rappers Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur and record producer “Suge” Knight, depicted by the film as a bullying, brutish thug.

But in its recreations of live performances or studio sessions, and in other moments when its explosive songs kick it, the movie really comes alive, reminding us of just how shocking, raw and impactive N.W.A.’s music was 25 years ago—and how powerfully it echoes even today.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Good Vibrations

Paul Dano, John Cusack share role of Beach Boy Brian Wilson

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Love & Mercy

Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks & Paul Giamatti

Directed by Bill Pohlad

PG-13

The Beach Boys and their songs about surf, sand, hot rods and girls represented West Coast light, life, fun and frolic in the 1960s. But the story “behind the music” had darker undertones, especially when it came to the group’s leader, Brian Wilson.

This trippy, time-tunnel dramatization of Wilson’s troubled, tortured musical genius bridges two different eras, 20 years apart, with powerful performances and mesmerizing filmmaking that recreates pivotal Beach Boys moments along with other, lesser-known incidents in Wilson’s life long after the group’s heyday.

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Paul Dano as ’60s-era Brian Wilson.

The movie’s most striking feature is its use of two different actors to portray its central character. As younger Brain, Paul Dano is nothing short of phenomenal in an Oscar-worthy performance that captures and channels the drive, innocence, obsession and brilliance that coalesced into the 1960s Beach Boys album Pet Sounds.

The movie toggles back and forth between Dano’s Brian and “later” Brian, movingly played by John Cusack as a shattered shell of man in the mid 1980s, imprisoned in a toxic relationship with a greedy, manipulative therapist (Paul Giamatti) who over-medicates him into a stupor and bars him from contact with his family.

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Elizabeth Banks and John Cusack

Elizabeth Banks is terrific as titanium blonde Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who comes into Wilson’s life in 1985, falls in love with him—and leads the charge for his deliverance.

The movie takes its title from a 1988 solo song by Wilson, and if you want to hear it, you’ll need to stay through the credits. It’s well worth the wait.

Although the relationship between Brian and Melinda puts much of the dramatic spotlight on Cusack, Banks and Giamatti, it’s Dano who steals the show. Composing songs at a piano, singing on stage, tinkering in the studio or simply feeling his head swell with a symphony of swirling music that only he can hear (kudos to Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross for his mood-perfect soundscapes), he conveys the sophisticated scope of Wilson’s prodigious talents, the heartbreak of his tumultuous relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) and the fissures that would later lead to full-blown mental and physical breakdowns.

“Who are you, Mozart?” Mike Love (Jake Abel) of the group asks Wilson as he seethes over Wilson taking more and more creative control—and leaving the rest of the Beach Boys on the sidelines. “It’s like you’re making your own record—we’re barely a part of the Brian Wilson band.”

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Beach Boys fans will love director Bill Pohlad’s almost documentary-style recreation of the group’s early promotional videos, album-cover photo shoots and TV performances. Sequences that depict Wilson in the recording studio, working with session players and band mates on what would become the 1966 pop-opus masterpiece Pet Sounds, feel like stolen, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the real thing.

But even more casual viewers will be touched by the romance at the heart of the tale, riveted by the acting, retro-grooved by the tunes, and entranced by the opportunity to learn more about a wounded pop-music Mozart who finally, fatefully found the Love & Mercy that healed him.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Itsy Bitsy Spider

Marvel Comics’ wall-crawling teen hero has to fight for his own spotlight

Andrew Garfield

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone & Jamie Foxx

Directed by Marc Webb

PG-13, 142 min.

 

The other night on TV, a show featured an urban-legend-ish conversation about someone who’d been bitten by a spider and then discovered little spiders crawling out of the bump on his neck.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that as I watched this, the latest in the ongoing Hollywood franchise about a nerdy teenager, Peter Parker, turned into a wisecracking, crime-fighting superhero by the bite of a radioactive arachnid. Not only is the Spider-Man empire, with its deep comic-book roots that go back to 1962, built on the bite of a spider, but this now marks the fifth big-screen treatment of the tale, and the second notch of the new cinematic arc following the original Spider-Man cinema trilogy, starring Tobey Maguire, that ended in 2007.

Andrew GarfieldThose little spiders—they just keep coming. The problem is, now they’re in danger of getting lost in their own enormous web: massive productions with king-size star sizzle, mega special effects and north-of-$200-million budgets. This time around, the iconic wall-crawler (Andrew Garfield, reprising his role from 2012) has to deal with multiple villains, Peter Parker’s complicated relationship with girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, also returning), and troubling questions about his deceased parents.

Director Marc Webb, who also directed 2012’s Amazing Spider-Man, throws a lot into the movie’s sprawling two hours and 20-plus minutes—eye-popping action, tender moments, romance, humor, and musings on life, death, love, longing, friendship, loss, hope and the importance of fighting “for what matters to you.”

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Jamie Foxx as Electro.

It’s jam-packed, stuffed with too much of everything, especially bad guys—do we really need three of them? Jamie Foxx plays an electrical engineer with serious self-esteem issues who gets turned, via a freak high-voltage mishap, into the rampaging super-villain Electro. Dane DeHaan is Harry Osborne, Parker’s rich, preppy high-school friend with a mutant family gene that morphs him into the monstrous Green Goblin. And Paul Giamatti, who opens the movie as a Russian prison escapee, later appears transformed into yet another one of Spidey’s archenemies from the good ol’ Marvel Comic book days.

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Garfield and Stone have natural chemistry as Peter Parker and girlfriend Gwen.

Garfield, 30, and Stone, 25, seem a tad old to be playing recently graduated high school seniors. But the two of them have great natural chemistry (they’re a real-life couple, too). And their scenes together, especially when Garfield is out of the Spidey spandex and playing plain ol’ Peter, provide the movie’s strongest human heartbeat. Webb, whose directing resumè also includes the indie charmer 500 Days of Summer, gives Pete ’n’ Gwen just as much of the story as Spider-Man, a wise move for making this movie resonate even more as a date flick.

Like most comic-based characters, superheroes never seem to age; Peter Parker/Spider-Man will always be eternally young. At least it’s that way in the movies, where time can be suspended, reset and rewound, and “old” actors, like Maguire, can be replaced by newer ones, like Garfield—who’s already signed on to star in the first of the two additional Amazing Spider-Man follow-ups.

Yes, those little spiders—they do just keep coming. Perhaps next time, the itsy bitsy spider won’t have such a hard time fighting for his own spotlight.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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