Category Archives: Paul Giamatti

The Holdovers-2023

The Holdovers-2023

Director Alexander Payne

Starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Scott’s Review #1,410

Reviewed November 22, 2023

Grade: A

The snowy New England setting is just one of many aspects of The Holdovers (2023), director Alexander Payne’s latest release gets right. There’s a stuffy prep school, the tumultuous 1970-1971 in world politics, and teenage angst in the mix.

The early 1970s-era set pieces and Americana comfort food are brilliantly and prominently placed to offer security in a world with tragedy and loneliness The jazzy soundtrack also features hits of the time, embracing the viewer in beautiful nostalgia.

Finally, the three lead characters are well-defined and their complexities are displayed in raw form making them rich relatable flawed thanks to strong acting performances.

Paul Giamatti leads the charge as a sarcastic teacher with his great acting and meshes well with newcomers Dominic Sessa as a rival student and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a kind but wounded cook.

Anyone who has seen Payne’s films like Election (1999), Sideways (2004), The Descendents (2011), or others knows that he sprinkles satirical depictions of contemporary American society in his works.

There is frequently sadness and morosity to the content saved from depression by warmhearted and caring characters.

I savored the quiet moments of human connection that were crafted in The Holdovers.

Events occur over about two weeks beginning at Christmas break and culminating in early January so holiday cheer and sadness are themes.

Paul Hunham (Giamatti) is a classics instructor at Barton University, a prep school outside of Boston. He is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go.

At first, despising each other he eventually forms an unlikely bond with one of them, a damaged, but witty troublemaker named Angus Tully (Sessa).

He also connects with the school’s head cook, Mary (Randolph), who has just lost her son in the Vietnam War (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and shows romantic interest in Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston), a Barton faculty member.

Giamatti is terrific and my favorite character. As a grumpy teacher, the character could have been a one-note standard or stock.  But as events go on we learn more about his past and despite being an authority figure he has demons and insecurities of his own.

During emotional moments he calmly offers a voice of reason which is a comfort. He’s stoic and rough around the edges but he genuinely cares about people making him likable.

Sessa and Randolph, despite being supporting characters each have their own stories.

There wasn’t much awareness about mental illness in 1970 compared to current times and Angus, who takes medication is fearful of spiraling down the same rabbit hole that cost his father his sanity.

Will he follow in his Dad’s footsteps?

A teary scene occurs when Angus visits his father in a facility. Hopeful of progress, Angus is quietly shattered when his father reveals paranoia about his food being poisoned by the staff.

Sessa provides a low-key performance that envelopes the character.

Randolph as Mary is kind yet depressed. She tries to find the good in people while realizing she’s been left out of the game in many instances. Her breakdown scene at a Christmas party allows Randolph to flex her mighty acting muscles.

I relished in the retro Christmas lights, the suburban houses with 1960s and 1970s living room and kitchen set pieces, the sweaters, the hairstyles, and the coffee mugs and plates.

The set designers flawlessly depict a time long ago.

I wanted to sit down and dine on Mary’s scrambled eggs and bacon or Lydia’s Christmas cookies. I yearned to sip a Miller Lite with Paul and Angus.

Finally, I smiled pleasantly at the movie theater scene featuring Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, an obscure American Western film from 1970.

With precision, Alexander Payne creates another outstanding film featuring the trials and tribulations of good characters dealt losing hands.

The Holdovers (2023) proves that a quality film with terrific writing, a moderate pace, and dramatic and comic moments, draws cinema fans to theaters as much as a cliched superhero film.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Picture, Best Actor-Paul Giamatti, Best Supporting Actress-Da’Vine Joy Randolph (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Awards Nominations: 3 wins-Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Performance-Da’Vine Joy Randolph (won), Best Breakthrough Performance-Dominic Sessa (won), Best Cinematography (won)

Saving Private Ryan-1998

Saving Private Ryan-1998

Director Steven Spielberg

Starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore

Scott’s Review #778

Reviewed June 26, 2018

Grade: A

Famed director Steven Spielberg does not always get his due respect. This is usually because, for better or worse, he has become synonymous with the “blockbuster” film, drawing comparisons to either lightweight fare or films of “lesser” artistic merit.

His 1980’s works- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), were enormous commercial successes, though I enjoyed all of the films.

During the 1990s Spielberg continued to direct “popcorn flicks” such as Hook (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993), with large studio budgets, but with somewhat less critical acclaim.

Finally, he was able to change many opinions with 1993’s Schindler’s List and the war film to end all war films, Saving Private Ryan (1998), an epic, profound experience.

Both received numerous Oscar nominations and success at the box office.

The film is a tremendous treat for nothing other than the riveting opening sequence alone (more about that later). If that is not enough to impress, Saving Private Ryan is known for infusing a very graphic element into the war film- with no letting up from the brutality.

Spielberg does not water down this picture, instead shows the pain and angst of war. The film is helped tremendously by the casting of Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks, who leads an enormous cast of mainly young men.

Saving Private Ryan opens with a prologue- in present times a veteran brings his family to visit an American cemetery at Normandy. Flashbacks then take the audience back to the Omaha Beach debacle in 1944, where American troops faced deadly German artillery attacks in France.

After the horrific three-day D-Day, it is learned that three of the four Ryan sons have died in the events. Captain Miller (Hanks) is ordered to bring a team of men to Normandy and bring the fourth Ryan son (Matt Damon) to safety.

Spielberg’s opening D-day sequence is just astounding and propels the film to unforgettable status. With a running time of twenty-four minutes, the riveting and horrific slaughter of American soldiers is intensely brought to the screen.

Audiences undoubtedly sat open-mouthed (I know I did!) as bullets riddled the beach and left soldiers killed or with limbs torn off. The camera-work is brilliant as the use of a shaky technique, almost documentary style is used for effect.

Successful is this sequence at promoting an anti-war sentiment while not glorifying the combat at all. The scene will stay with its audience for years to come.

Saving Private Ryan can be compared to the decades later Dunkirk (2017) in that each film took the war genre and turned it upside down.  The similarities between the films start with the obvious- the main events in both films are during World War II, the same week, and the French beach settings making the films perfect companion pieces.

Both films feature a gray, rainy setting with many horrific moments of death and suffering. The war film is a common genre that has historically teetered on predictability and over-saturation, but both films do something completely different and unexpected, yet mirror each other in style.

To counter-balance the violence in the opening sequence, a quiet scene is created and remains one of my favorites. The scene contains almost no dialogue throughout the seven-minute duration and is pivotal to the entire film.

As a typist realizes that three letters of death are to be delivered to the same family, a woman on a mid-west farm quietly washes dishes and is calmly horrified when she sees a government car approaching.

What else can this mean but that one of her sons is dead? The poor Mrs. Ryan will be told that she has lost not one, but three sons.

How utterly unimaginable and the scene is incredibly touching!

The best part of Saving Private Ryan is that Spielberg provides a deep level of sentimental vision combined with the terrible atrocities of war. He portrays not only the violent effects of the battles on the soldiers but also the surviving families.

This is not always done in war films, at least not to the level that Spielberg chooses to.

With such a film as the startling Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg turned the war film genre inside out. Breaking barriers with a no-holds gusto, Spielberg influenced war films for years to come- Black Hawk Down and Enemy at the Gates (2001) are prime examples, and received acclaim from fellow directors for his interesting techniques.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) was an enormous financial winner at the box office, proving that great films don’t have to be watered down to find an audience.

Oscar Nominations: 5 wins-Best Picture, Best Director-Steven Spielberg (won), Best Actor-Tom Hanks, Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Sound Effects Editing (won), Best Sound (won), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (won), Best Makeup, Best Film Editing (won)

The Last Station-2009

The Last Station-2009

Director Michael Hoffman

Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren

Scott’s Review #569

Reviewed December 28, 2016

Grade: A-

The Last Station (2009) is a wonderful film.

It contains many worthwhile elements- history, culture, good drama, and great acting. Starring seasoned veterans such as Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, the fantastic acting is as good as it gets.

The film tells the story of the final year in the life of famous Russian author Tolstoy and the relationship he has with his family- specifically his wife, Sofya, and his disciples.

The year is 1910 and Tolstoy is ailing. He has had a stormy yet passionate relationship with his wife for decades, which is explored in the film.

The film’s main point is greed and in-fighting for control of a great literary figure’s legacy and money.

The main strong point of The Last Station is the relationship between Tolstoy and Sofya- both characters are headstrong and opinionated, but also madly in love, which leads to many sessions of battle.

This is a film of substance.

Director Michael Hoffman also mixes some humor with the heavy drama.

In conclusion, you might need to use some hankies.

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Helen Mirren, Best Supporting Actor-Christopher Plummer

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Michael Hoffman, Best Female Lead-Helen Mirren, Best Supporting Male-Christopher Plummer, Best Screenplay

Straight Outta Compton-2015

Straight Outta Compton-2015

Director F. Gary Gray

Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Paul Giamatti

Scott’s Review #517

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Reviewed November 12, 2016

Grade: B-

The rap group N.W.A. was a highly influential and controversial unit to emerge from Compton, California in the late 1980s and featured soon-to-be solo rap artists Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

Another member, Eazy-E, rounds out the trio featured in this film along with their manager Jerry, played by Paul Giamatti.

Straight Outta Compton (2015) tells their story.

Ice Cube and Dr. Dre produced the film along with Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, and Ice Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. portray Ice Cube.

The film is interesting as a way of learning about the rap group and their rise to and fall from stardom, but the film has a very slick and glossy style that detracts from the grittiness of the subject matter.

It feels very Hollywood and overly produced.

Especially, since the language is atrocious- almost overly, as if the point was being shoved down our throats.

Additionally, the acting, except for Giamatti, is not too impressive.

Lastly, the violence portrayed and the gang stuff seems a bit stereotypical for my tastes.

The film begins in 1986 and we meet a trio of friends. Determined to provide a raw, honest style of poetry to their music, they eventually meet their manager, Jerry, who takes them under his wing and leads them to their success.

Predictably, with success comes jealousy and contract disputes. The film delves into this subject matter as the partying and drug use, womanizing, and violence, all lead to the rap group’s constant struggles with the police force, especially since one of their top songs is anti-police.

Impressive is the real-life footage used of the 1991 beating of taxi driver Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department and the subsequent riots that occurred after the officers were found not guilty of any wrongdoing.

The racial tension in this city was interesting to revisit and palpable to the film’s subject matter.

The acting was noticeable to me and not in a good way. The young actor who plays Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was fine, but the others (Jackson) and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E were average at best. In any of their dramatic scenes where they appear to be angry, it just does not work, and the scenes lack grizzle and intensity.

Conversely, any dramatic scene that held any gusto belonged to Giamatti, who was excellent in his part. He makes the others seem better, but in other ways, their inexperience is evident compared to his.

In any event, he only makes the scenes he appears in more genuine. Early in the film, when Jerry lashes out at police officers, it is a meaty scene and forceful.

The filmmakers go for a message of violence and swearing in this film, but despite this, Straight Outta Compton still seems safe and overly produced. This may have had to do with the bright, slick cameras used.

It has a studio, high-budget appearance that does not completely work. I wanted it to look grittier and dirtier and see more of the seedy side of the business instead of merely being explained to me.

Women in this film are not treated very well and the characters who are the girlfriends are written sympathetically, but not given much substance to sink their teeth into.

Contrasting, Death Row Records CEO “Suge” Knight is portrayed as a maniacal, violent man.

Straight Outta Compton is a guy’s film.

I had difficulty relating to any of the central characters except perhaps Giamatti’s and it becomes unclear if Jerry had been ripping off the members of the rap group or if that is merely their perception. He seems to care about the members so that part is undefined.

Perhaps this film might hold more appeal for fans of N.W.A., which I never was, and rap is not my preferred style of music. I can appreciate the biographical way the film explains the trio’s story, ups and downs, reunions, death, and violence, but this film could have been much better and is flawed by its over-stylized filming.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

12 Years a Slave-2013

12 Years a Slave-2013

Director Steve McQueen

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender

Scott’s Review #62

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Reviewed June 24, 2014

Grade: A

At the time of 12 Years a Slave’s (2013) release, a ton of buzz began circulating. Was it that good?

Considered the front-runner to win the Best Picture statue, it did go on to win the top honor.

The film is not easy to watch. It is brutal and heart-wrenching at times. I will spare the details, but the most intense scene involves a whip.

There are scenes of torture, degradation, and cruelty against the slaves by the slave owners.

While tough to watch, I applaud the film for not glossing over the atrocities of slavery. Some have criticized it for being a retread of similar films, but I disagree. It is worlds more intense than watered-down versions.

However, the film is not a downer.

Yes, a class of people is beaten down and victimized, but they also rise above and never give up hope. The fact that it’s a true story and a book was written on the subject by the real Solomon Northup makes it all the more powerful.

The performances are outstanding (Ejiofor, Fassbender, Paulson, and Nyong’o).

The look and cinematography are sharp and I love the distinctiveness of the north and south scenes. The setting is stifling hot and dreary.

There are at least two scenes where the camera pans on a shot and holds it for seemingly an eternity until an action occurs, which makes the scenes effective.

While difficult to watch, 12 Years a Slave (2013) should be viewed by everyone to see how far society has come, not forgetting how far we still need to go to eliminate discrimination and victimization.

Oscar Nominations: 3 wins-Best Picture (won), Best Director-Steve McQueen, Best Actor-Chiwetel Ejiofor, Best Supporting Actor-Michael Fassbender, Best Supporting Actress-Lupita Nyong’o (won), Best Adapted Screenplay (won), Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: 5 wins-Best Feature (won), Best Director-Steve McQueen (won), Best Male Lead-Chiwetel Ejiofor, Best Supporting Male-Michael Fassbender, Best Supporting Female-Lupita Nyong’o (won), Best Screenplay (won), Best Cinematography (won)

Saving Mr. Banks-2013

Saving Mr. Banks-2013

Director John Lee Hancock

Starring Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson

Scott’s Review #36

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Reviewed June 18, 2014

Grade: A-

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) is a movie that transports you back to the wonders of childhood.

It is a delightful, whimsical tale of how the story of “Mary Poppins” made it to the silver screen as a Walt Disney production in the 1960s and there were many challenges.

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks (as author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney, respectively) prevent this film from being overly sentimental and even sappy, by their character portrayals.

Travers is a difficult, demanding woman, but Thompson adds layers to her so the viewer feels attached and sympathetic.

Tom Hanks portrays Disney to the hilt as patient and understanding. Travers’s backstory is heartfelt and interesting.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) is a mainstream, Hollywood feature, but one that reeled me in from the get-go and never let up.

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Score

The Amazing Spider-Man 2-2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2-2014

Director Marc Webb

Starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone

Scott’s Review #2

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Reviewed June 16, 2014

Grade: B+

Superhero movies are not my top genre (although admittedly, I see many of them).

They are fun, popcorn-type films not to be over-analyzed or taken too seriously.

One thing that confuses me is the seemingly constant reboots of the Spider-Man franchises and forgetting the previous installments.

Wasn’t this series just made with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst not too long ago?

That being said, the strongest part of this film is the chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, which is undeniable and great to watch. Sally Field adds life to anything she appears in.

The more “human” parts of the film are the best.

The special effects/CGI are admirable. I enjoyed how one “villain” is a close friend of Peter Parker’s, wonderfully played by Dane DeHaan. His character has many nuances.

The other villain, Electro, played by Jamie Foxx, is silly and his story almost seems botched. His motivations are weak. He hates Spider-Man and wants to destroy the city because of a contrived misunderstanding.

I do not want to over-analyze The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), as this is a fun, enjoyable summer film.