Paul G — #4

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Last time we were here, Paul had plunged himself into a truly despicable role as a slave trader in Louisiana who played a fundamental role in the fate of Solomon Northup, a free man abducted in Washington D.C. to be sold into slavery in the south, where he’d remain for 12 years. Given that we’ve had two fairly nasty roles in succession, let’s move the discussion to a character who is a little easier to get along with, even if ultimately he, too, isn’t without a few tricks up his sleeve — a record producer who finds himself doing whatever’s necessary to keep riding the wave of success off the back of newly signed rap group N.W.A.

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Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller in F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama/biopic

Plot Synopsis: The group N.W.A. emerges from the mean streets of Compton in Los Angeles, California in the mid-1980s and revolutionizes hip-hop culture with their music and tales about life in the ‘hood.

Character Profile: A successful American businessman, record producer and the co-founder of Ruthless Records along with rapper Eazy-E, Jerry Heller’s most notable for his discovery and development of rap group N.W.A., something that led to him becoming inextricably linked to the emergence of west coast rap, including the birth of groups such as The Black Eyed Peas, Above the Law, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Heller came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s with his support behind bands like Journey, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Crosby Stills & Nash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, REO Speedwagon, and Styx, among others, placing him at the top of a very tall pillar of successful American producers. While his business acumen spoke for itself, Heller was also never short of a few self-serving schemes. The eventual fall-out between Eazy-E and the producer spoke to the level of frustration that members of the group had started to feel towards Heller’s exploitation of their popularity. Parting ways with N.W.A. proved to be a painful, bitter and somewhat protracted process, and it got ugly enough to inspire Ice Cube to lay down a few raps specifically calling out Heller and the way he mistreated the others.

Why he’s the man: While I can’t say this is a character that no other actor could make suitably smarmy, Jerry Heller is brought to life entirely effortlessly by Paul Giamatti’s natural gravitation towards playing untrustworthy types. Here is a man we start off on the right foot with immediately and it takes so long for cracks in the façade to appear. But, unfortunately, they eventually do and Giamatti reminds us once again why he’s so good at playing these types of people. He makes it far too easy to buy into the tricks Heller shows a group of up-and-coming talented rappers, but soon enough he’s taking a bigger cut of the royalties than what he initially said he would take and he’s having clandestine meetings with Eazy-E and making moves to try and manipulate the direction of the group. Never trust Giamatti, especially when you can’t even trust his hair color.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

JCR Factor #4

July, along with sweltering temperatures, brings you the fourth edition of the John C. Reilly Factor — Thomas J’s latest character study. To find more related material, visit the Features menu up top and search the sub-menu Actor Profiles.

I’m not sure if anyone has ever rated JCR’s sexiness on a scale of 1 – anything. Does anyone actually think about this actor in that way? No? Okay. We’ll just continue, and pretend I didn’t introduce this next performance in that way. . .

John C. Reilly as Reed Rothchild in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Character Profile: An adult film actor, failed poet/writer and aspiring magician, Reed Rothchild is like many a young and wide-eyed Los Angelino waiting for their break into show biz. While always on the lookout for a better gig he is, for the time being, satisfied with his contributions to famed adult film director Jack Horner’s colorful filmography. When a new actor arrives on the scene in the form of Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler, initial tensions eventually give way to a lasting friendship that sees both young bucks jettisoning to the fore of America’s most recognizable adult film stars. Unfortunately it is a career path that proves to be just as (if not more) dangerous as it is alluring.

If you lose JCR, the film loses: Reed Rothchild — nothing more, nothing less. As much as John C. Reilly has presence in Boogie Nights, someone else with similar comedic timing and style could fill in for him and the role wouldn’t significantly change. The real strength of this film comes from its storytelling — the overarching journey of the lead(s) from the ’70s party scene and into the comparatively more gloomy and financially less secure ’80s. Reilly gets kind of swept up in the grandioseness of yet another PTA masterpiece. While his character is fun to watch interact with newcomer Dirk Diggler, Reed doesn’t have a big enough part in this film to evoke significant emotions. Count on Reilly to give a great performance but in a film crammed with mesmerizing performances he feels ever so slightly more expendable than usual.

That’s what he said: “You know, people tell me I kind of look like Han Solo.”

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work): 


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Photo credits: http://www.rowthree.com 

TBT: Almost Famous (2000)

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As Will Smith notes in Independence Day, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings. And while I knew, deep down, there would not be any fat lady singing to indicate this feature had truly ended, I also knew there was no way I could stop doing these posts. It’s the longest-running feature on the blog! Fortunately I have, in my estimation, something kind of important to talk about to jumpstart the conversation about films from years past. And it is actually one I am lifting from this Top That! list I had posted a little while ago, which you can check out here. Okay. I think that’s enough links for one intro.

Today’s food for thought: Almost Famous.

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Following Stillwater since: September 22, 2000

[Netflix]

Even though it’s kind of a bummer, it really does make sense. Rock stars are cool and rock journalists are . . . not. I wonder what that says about film critics, about those who try hard to be included in the spotlight but never will — doomed to remain tantalizingly on the fading edge of the spotlight while trying their damnedest to understand that which they are covering for their stories in an effort to perhaps better understand themselves.

In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s turn-of-the-century (millennium, actually) film about a young aspiring journalist who stumbles into the industry only to haphazardly fall back out of it after following a fictitious rock band around the U.S. in an attempt to get his first cover story published, Crowe was confessing several things.

First, the obvious (and quite cliché): fame ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Patrick Fugit, billed as William Miller but clearly miming Cameron Crowe at age 15 when he himself was contributing articles to Rolling Stone magazine while still attending high school, learns this the hard way. When a rock critic he greatly admires sends him on his first professional assignment to cover headliner Black Sabbath, William inadvertently gets swept up in the experiences — many thrilling and others not so much — shared by the members of Stillwater with whom he forms a bond during their 1973 American tour.

Second, if Almost Famous was even close to an accurate rendering of some of his experiences, then writing about rock’n roll was the gig to get, despite bitterness frothing in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cautionary monologues bookending William’s adventure. “Don’t befriend the bands you meet . . . ” (whoops); “You will never be as cool as a rock’n roll celebrity. People like us, we’re not cool.” If the relationship between Crowe and Rolling Stone taught him anything, it’s how to write a great screenplay. Perhaps the transition into writing movies was less a stepping stone as it was inevitable, the precursor to actually being cool.

And of tertiary importance: if you were a die-hard rock fan, the 70s must have been a rough ride. Band leaders Russell (Billy Crudup) and Jeff (Jason Lee) take center stage in representing Stillwater on and off the tour bus, naturally, as the two lead guitarists. The pair exhibit varying levels of enthusiasm over having a journalist along for their tour as they have serious concerns about how their image may be affected when William (a.k.a. “the enemy”) publishes his story. Struggling to maintain relevance in an era of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’ and Dancing Queens the members are keen on steering William in the direction they wanted his writing to take them, which is to say, towards the limelight of bigger stages.

Almost Famous is uncanny in many ways but it truly excels in creating tension between personal and professional goal-setting. New band managers entering the fold add to Stillwater’s misery; an air of distrust and uncertainty surrounding the wide-eyed journalist’s intentions thickens as time passes. Then toss Stillwater groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, iconic) into the mix as Russell’s ex and the first to take an interest in William at the Black Sabbath concert, and suddenly the lives of rock journalist and professional rock band don’t seem so incongruous. It’s the warning Hoffman’s Lester Bangs was providing all along.

Crowe may have tapped into the zeitgeist of the 70s music scene, but he also struck a deeper chord. This was something of a personal journey for him and it would be a mistake to think, despite how good Patrick Fugit is — hell, how good any of the members of this sprawling ensemble are — Almost Famous served primarily as an actor’s showcase. This learning experience is tinged with pain, nostalgia, envy, regret, sorrow, elation. The cast sublimely navigate these emotions in a story that begs to be revisited time and again. For all of these reasons and more, Crowe’s fourth directorial effort has been rightfully regarded as a classic.

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4-5Recommendation: An almost perfect film experience, watch Almost Famous for the nostalgia, for the music (there are 50 credited songs used here), for the performances, for the Philip Seymour Hoffman performance (who was sick the entire time), for the plane scene, for Penny Lane — for all of it. If Almost Famous doesn’t appeal, music dramas are clearly not your cup of tea. And I guess, that’s cool too . . . 

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: A literal coming-of-age story: Patrick Fugit’s voice apparently broke (deepened) during the making of Almost Famous.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Hercules

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Release: Friday, July 25, 2014

[Theater]

I think everyone who sees this one ought to go out and show their support by buying a Dwayne ‘Hercules’ Johnson action-hero figurine, complete with brown undies and epic flowing hair and redonkulous chest-piece. I don’t care what it takes, just get it done: “Hey kids, get in the van ‘cuz we’re going to Mickey-D’s to get Happy Meals just for the toy!”

Abundant are the gimmicks churned out by Hollywood that seem to attract a much wider audience than they should. You can tack Dwayne ‘The Rock’ (or wait, should it really be ‘Hercules’ now?) Johnson’s most recent summer romp onto that ever-growing list. But this, the Brett Ratner-directed and shameless harkening back to Dwayne’s glory days of dropkicking motherf*ckers left and right, has a zing to it. The former wrestler clad in prehistoric undergarments and a lion’s head as a skull cap. Tell me precisely how that doesn’t sell tickets.

Well, it did. But not an incredible amount. With its inane sci-fi competitor debuting the same weekend, Hercules took a slight slap in the face with a second-place gross opening of $28 million. (Oh, Lucy, you’re such a bitch!) But I suppose all’s fair in. . .what is this, guilty-pleasure entertainment. . .right? Lucy touted a sexy cast and some gee-golly-willickers special effects. If you were at the theater that weekend, there’s a 50-50 chance you found yourself giggling over ever-so-slight hints of homoeroticism in a professional wrestler-turned-actor, one of the (physically) biggest dudes to ever put on the acting cap, now fleeing from his clothes one badass adventure at a time.

Rumored to be the demigod son of Zeus, Hercules is somewhat burdened with beyond-legendary status throughout the land, and the word has been spreading of his completion of the Twelve Labors, a series of impossible tasks intended to separate the mortal from the. . .well, the ones who can’t die. Like, ever. But Hercules, in the wake of his refusal to accept his all-too-mythical conception and duties as a demigod to this mortal world, insists he be treated as another man. In his humbleness, he has accepted the assistance of several skilled personnel who surround him at all times.

There’s Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), a man who most often resists his temptation for wealth and gold to fight the good fight alongside his fellow man; Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), a woman warrior no man would ever dare to cross; Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), a hideously ugly man born in the midst of battle who knows only violence and bloodshed; and everyone’s favorite off-his-rocker prophet, Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) whose visions of his own death are not so impending as they are enlightening and help him in battle each and every time. Together this gang helps to dispel the myth that Hercules works alone and is anything more than a large man with titanic strength. Oh, but is he?

Brett Ratner pushes the pace of his story at quite a fine rate as we move along a series of spectacularly scenic action set pieces including grassy battlefields, murky swamplands, dank temples and vast, sweeping plains backed by towering majestic peaks. The scenery no doubt helps off-set the trademark-Ratner clunky dialogue and awkward tonal shifts. In fact it’s one of the more pleasant surprises with Hercules that nothing ever slows to such a crawl we’re allowed to over-think what’s being laid out before us. There’s every opportunity for the more cynical of us to do so anyway, and that’s all well and good but to do so too frequently would be to invite arguments as to why you are even sitting in this theater in the first place. The film dispenses of realism and opts not to take the legend all that seriously.

As if we were going to accuse Ratner of fraud with this guy in this role. What does feel a little fraudulent here are the occasional detours into full-blown drama territory. The basic plot hinges on Hercules’ muscle-for-hire and his band of dedicated warriors. When they are informed of a particular Greek province, Thrace, coming under attack by a ruthless warlord named Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann) they instantly focus their lifelong camaraderie into converting the legions of Thracian farmhands into merciless killing machines. They will be rewarded handsomely for their efforts, but alas, a caveat: King Cotys (John Hurt), the man whose daughter, Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) made them the offer to become local heroes, isn’t all he seems to be. Bulging with desire to be supreme ruler of all the Greek territories, it is the conflict once inside Thrace that puts a strain on Hercules physically, emotionally and ethically. Is he just another peasant after his pot of gold, or is there something more lurking underneath those bulging biceps and tattered-ass loincloth?

Ratner attempts to draw those conclusions but under the umbrella of a summer action flick, tongue held firmly in cheek because he knows what he is getting away with here. The crossover into profundity not only feels awkward but its handled somewhat heavy-handedly, making for some unnecessarily stilted monologues and admissions of guilt. Changes of heart feel more like changes in the script, conveniently edited clips that pander to the perfect Hollywood ending rather than one befitting of a demigod struggling to find his true identity.

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Rawr . . .

2-5Recommendation: Hercules is exactly what any reasonable person might expect. Often times you’ll find the movie poster that doesn’t reveal a great deal about its content other than its impressive cast or maybe even a particularly striking shot from one moment in the film. In this case, in one glance you virtually know the entire ordeal. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “F*cking centaurs!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Release: Friday, May 23, 2014

[Theater]

If Bryan Singer’s latest addition to the X-Men chronicle is any indication of the summer of movies that awaits us, by the shortness of Peter Dinklage we are in for a good one!

In fact the cinematic event that Singer has recently finished polishing off is one so grandiose it might very well make the controversy that arose prior to its worldwide debut a day simply of the past. With any luck, the quality of this much-anticipated material will be enough to satisfy most blockbuster moviegoers’ palate in the coming weeks.

The last time we hung out with any mutants, it was starting to become a one-sided affair, and Logan, a.k.a. ‘the Wolverine’ seemed to be receiving more than his fair share of the spotlight. Even though at this point it’s been all but pre-determined by the studio that Hugh Jackman’s gorgeously CGI-ed biceps is what we need the most, we are inclined to agree. His understanding of the character, and his command of it has been a thrill to watch; his pain consistently strikes at the heart of the struggle of the X-Men. And despite getting to spend that much more time with his charismatic manimal in The Wolverine and X-Men Origins — it’s not really his fault his character seems to be the most compelling of those who possess the magical DNA — these considerably lackadaisical entries contributed greatly to the sense that the series itself was a dying breed. Even despite Jackman and a wealth of material still yet to be tapped.

It’s fine, though. A few steps may have been taken backward but it’s with great relief to announce that what this summer has in store for fans is something that takes leaps and bounds beyond anything that has come before it. Simultaneously a compelling merger of the mutants in their younger and older forms, and an action-packed adventure/fantasy in its own right, X-Men: Days of Future Past is thrillingly paced, hilarious and keenly self-aware; intelligent on a level the series has been clawing at but failing to breach thus far. To be fair, few films with stakes this high can afford to be all these things at once without sacrificing something.

Given the final product on display here, it’s unclear what Singer or screenwriter Simon Kinberg have had to sacrifice. We join up with the few surviving mutants who are now hunkering down in the side of a mountain as the world around them continues to deteriorate. A government-sanctioned program has spawned a third race of beings on the planet: sentient robots built with the sole purpose of targeting those with mutated gene pools. These are the creation of the sinister Dr. Bolivar Trask (Dinklage) and they are horrifyingly efficient at what they do.

The crisis has reached a point where reconciliation is all but impossible for either party, and it’s even begun to sap Professor X (Patrick Stewart)’s optimism for a future of any kind. Fortunately he’s still got one more trick up his sleeve, and that is in Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page)’s ability to project present consciousnesses of fellow mutants back in time into beings that existed back then. One snag: the critical time period we must go back to is 1973 — fifty years removed from the present, and this eliminates all mutants but Wolverine, as they won’t be able to physically or psychologically survive such a sojourn.

Wolverine’s task is to track down certain mutants in 1973. Yes, this will indeed involve the unenviable challenge of intervening during a period where a young and besotted Charles (James McAvoy) is having a bit of a spat with the similarly naive Erik Lensherr, a.k.a. Magneto (Michael Fassbender). He must organize everyone in an effort to prevent a renegade Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) from her inevitable date with destiny, as the blue-skinned beauty has taken it upon herself to even the score with Bolivar, whom she seeks for his inexorable experimentation on her mutant friends.

There’s no room for error on her part, and ditto that for Wolverine, only with exponentially less room. Not only is he battling the conditions of the time period he’s reinserted himself into, he’s having to convince those around him that there’s a bigger picture they all must pay attention to; and this isn’t even to mention that his journeying into the past has a perpetual impact on his physical and mental tenacity. This is assuming nothing goes wrong on the other end, as well.

Days of Future Past stockpiles the thrills as its labyrinthian plot unfolds piecewise. Its similarly expansive cast is on fine form and at this point in the game its more than a little difficult to separate actor from character. Familiarity typically breeds contempt, but here it breeds a hell of a lot of fun. Comparisons to The Matrix and Marvel’s The Avengers aren’t unreasonable — the teleportation of Wolverine seems to mimic the connection between realities found in the former, whereas both scope and visual grandeur make the comparison to the latter all but inevitable.

Comparisons run amok with Bryan Singer’s new X-Men installment, but it’s as well a thoroughly well-made product on its own merits. It looks sleek and best of all, it doesn’t feel even one second over 90 minutes. The film is actually over two hours in length, and even has time to factor in an exquisitely rendered and considerably extensive slow-motion sequence, without ever feeling like it’s wasting ours. Now that is effective storytelling.

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4-0Recommendation: Was it worth the wait? You bet your mutant ass it was. Days of Future Past may stack up to be one of the most heavily anticipated films of the year, and the final product is well-equipped to handle the challenge of living up to lofty expectations — expectations made so by frequent and repeated failure to get things right before. It deftly handles a dense amount of material by seamlessly connecting stories together, with a focus on the shadow games played by Mystique and Wolverine. Enthralling to newcomers and rooted firmly in the ethos of the comic, 2014 may well have brought us the definitive X-Men movie.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 131 mins.

Quoted: “Maybe you should have fought harder for them.”

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Photo credits: http://www.alternativemovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Franco Files — #3

ffWelcome to April, and the third edition of The Franco Files! We again continue exploring the different ways in which one actor has an impact on the overall film. There have only been two editions thus far, but I think I’ve already highlighted some pretty diverse roles from this, the former heart throb of Freaks & Geeks. Unfortunately, his reputation as of late has been cast into a not-so-favorable light given certain Instagram-related activity, as has been made public several days ago now. What I’m going to say next will probably stun many as to how blind a follower of the guy I may be. . . . .

. . . .because I really think the guy just made a mistake using social media. While I don’t believe for a second that he’s as clueless to apps like Instagram as he is claiming to be, people and the Internets man. . . those two things sometimes don’t mix. Social media has proven so far to be an incredibly complex beast that can have far-reaching implications depending on the actions of its participants. An actor being a fairly high-profile user of these kinds of applications can find themselves in the news depending on what they choose to do and who they choose to associate with.

What this scandal is really good for, though, is setting up for my next highlight. Last month we looked at James Franco becoming a friendly stoner in David Gordon Green’s stoner comedy Pineapple Express. We turn this time to a more scandalous and possibly controversial role of his, a very recent one as a matter of fact. It’s a role that’s quite befitting of the times, what with 17-year-old girls blowing up his account with selfie’s and shit. Oh, James. You silly, lovestruck fool.

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Francophile #3: Alien, Spring Breakers

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Character Profile: Quite possibly James Franco’s most cosmetically transformative role, the gold-teeth gangster-rapper might also be his most psychologically transformative as well. Franco brings his charismatic smile to a face hardened by a presumably troubled life, a life maybe even on the streets which has led him to where he is now, living it up in a sunny beach locale doing drugs and putting on a show for the drunken mob of spring breakers visiting his town. Clearly older than most who appear on screen, he’s a hell of a hard partier himself and frequently courts danger with all of his shady connections with various gangs. He’s undoubtedly a misled man but when four young girls crash land in his life when they are arrested suddenly and need bail money to get out, Alien discovers he has something more buried underneath all those tattoos and cornrows. As the girls continue to stick around the scene, Alien becomes something of a protector (even if a more accurate term might be an enabler) to these. . e-hem, adventurous 18-year-olds. A fondness for Britney Spears and the color pink demonstrates a capacity for caring, a trait that wonderfully contradicts his physical appearance. Despite how transformative the supporting role is though, the film’s best asset is still Franco being Franco.

If you lose Franco, the film loses: it’s sense of humor. Despite the bikinis, bright colors and bumping soundtrack, Spring Breakers is a rather dark and morose series of events. Without Franco’s Alien, it’s not difficult to imagine the film becoming overburdened by melodrama. Alien is not only a creative, surprising character, he provides the film some much-needed comedic relief in a number of scenes. He may also be a big reason why some of the drama is created, especially in the film’s later stages, but the chief thing the film would lack without him would be any laughter at all. The girls, despite putting on good performances, are not what one would call generally likable and “funny,” even if some of their actions may cause a smirk. No, it is indeed James Franco who gives Spring Breakers a jolt of delicious entertainment.

Out of Character: [Spring Breakers] is a critique and it’s a celebration, and I don’t think it wants to be any one thing. This movie is the ultimate mash-up. In a way, it has its cake and it eats it, too. If you want to read it one way, it’s a critique of pop culture; the way we are just more and more dealing with surface-level things and images and the way those things fill our lives. And on another level, it’s using that idea of ‘surfaces’ as an aesthetic choice. The movie really takes advantage of those music video, cell phone-video aesthetics. I think we all just were waiting for a movie like this to be a part of. It was sort of effortless, such fun.”

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work): 

4-5


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