Tag Archives: Paul Giamatti

Not at Home, Not Quite Alone

The Holdovers

by George Wolf

It’s the holiday season! The time of peace, joy, and goodwill!

Or…conflict, resentment, and spite.

Director Alexander Payne serves up plenty from group B in The Holdovers, a period comedy that also finds time to unwrap some warmth and understanding.

It is December 1970, and most of the boys at New England’s Barton boarding school are heading home for the two-week Christmas break. Circumstance has left five “holdovers” behind, where they will endure the disciplined regimen of Mr. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a bitter history teacher who delights in the misery of his rich, entitled students.

But through an additionally cruel twist of fate for the angry, young Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), the four other left behinds get sprung, leaving Angus alone with the cantankerous teacher the boys have nicknamed “Walleye.”

Well they’re not quite alone. Kitchen manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is on campus, too. Mary’s still mourning the loss of her son Curtis in Vietnam, and she has no room in her heart of festive merrymaking.

Giamatti is perfection as a man who seems to have forged a comfortable “hate-hate” relationship with life. Sessa impresses in his screen debut, giving depth to the rebellion that has brought Angus multiple expulsions from multiple schools. And Randolph brings plenty of weary humanity, crafting Mary as a heartbroken woman still trying to understand why her Curtis was deemed more expendable than these rich white boys who are preparing for college instead of war.

And as Mr. Hunham tells Angus that we “must begin in the past to understand the present,” David Hemingson’s script sends the three unlikely friends off on a “field trip.” The adventure will reveal how their respective pasts have shaped them, and how they may have more in common than they knew.

There are areas of contrivance that recall Hemingson’s extensive TV resume, but Payne (Nebraska, Sideways, The Descendants) grounds it all with a comfortable restraint that allows the actors and some terrific production design to work authentic moments of magic and laughter..

We all have a story. Life can be unfair, and most of us are struggling with something. Be kind.

Those are lessons that seem to resonate a little deeper this time of year, which means now is the perfect time to accept an invitation from The Holdovers.

Take Me Out to the Spy Game

The Catcher Was a Spy

by George Wolf

The Catcher Was a Spy features a surprisingly impressive lead performance from Paul Rudd. It’s not his talent that surprises, but rather the role as enigmatic baseball player turned wartime spy.

This isn’t what we’ve come to expect from the always welcome Rudd, which makes him that much more appealing for branching out.

Dammit, Rudd, you likable rogue!

He stars as true life legend Moe Berg, who spent fifteen years as a Major Leaguer in the years before WWII. Though never a superstar, he was a well-respected and durable catcher with many other talents that proved useful.

A Princeton grad with multiple degrees, Berg spoke several languages and was fiercely private. With his playing career over and a war raging, Berg’s intellect, discretion and communication skills were valued at the O.S.S., where he was trained as a spy and tasked with assassinating the German physicist (Mark Strong) getting dangerously close to developing a nuclear bomb.


Director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) fills his throwback yarn with the requisite newsreel voiceovers and shadowy set pieces for a satisfactory spy thriller, but makes more of a mark through the intimate workings of Rudd and the supporting cast.

We’re told Berg is an enigma, but Rudd makes us feel it. From his blunt honesty to his sexual history, Berg’s nature always seems a bit out of step with the crowd, and Rudd provides the humanity to get us on his side while he stokes our curiosity.

Supporting players, including Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller, Paul Giamatti and Guy Pearce, are equally strong, cementing the relationships that elevate the adapted script from writer Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan).

As a spy drama, The Catcher remains fairly routine. Its power comes from its intimacy, getting just close enough to a mysterious, fascinating figure without disrespecting that figure’s commitment to mystery.


Mean Machine


by Hope Madden

The weekend of wasted talent rolls on with Morgan, a derivative AI adventure that boasts an impressive cast and a lot of borrowed material.

Luke Scott’s feature directorial debut finds trouble with the L7 – an unnamed corporation’s newest attempt at artificial intelligence. There’s been an injury, and we don’t want a repeat of Helsinki, (it’s always Helsinki!) so Corporate sends the risk analyst (Kate Mara) to assess the situation.

The cast offers loads of reason for optimism. Joining Mara are Brian Cox, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Toby Jones and the great Paul Giamatti. That is a stacked ensemble. And even if every single one of them is underused, each brings something genuine and human – you know, the kind of thing that comes from deep and true talent – to the proceedings.

Highest hopes, though, are hung on the potentially dangerous cyborg herself, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Hot off a brilliant lead in The Witch, Taylor-Joy again takes on a role in which her innocence is in question.

Like Witch helmsman Robert Eggers, Scott employs full screen close ups of Taylor-Joy’s face – her enormous, wide-set eyes and round, innocent features – to exacerbate a struggle to determine whether the character is good or evil.

And Scott clearly knows a good idea when he sees it because he borrows, grabs and plunders with glee.

His film is a mish-mash of Ex Machina, The Silence of the Lambs, Blade Runner and Terminator buoyed with decent performances and one vaguely fresh notion.

Every major character – every hero, villain, person of authority and character pivotal to the plot – is female. Every good decision, poor decision, and bit of badassery is made by a woman. And – get this – even when two of those women are soaking wet, their shirts are neither clingy nor sheer.


I’m not going to lie to you – any horror/action hybrid with a predominantly female cast that chooses not to stoop to titillation and exploitation gets an extra star.

There are subtle moments that toy with sexuality, and Scott wisely lets Taylor-Joy express these themes primarily through a nuanced physicality. That, decent pacing and performances better than the material demands elevate the film above the predictable off-season action vehicle that it is.


Hey, your sandwich is talking to you

by Hope Madden

“You don’t choose the soy sauce. The soy sauce chooses you.”

If you hear these words while holding a bratwurst to your head like a cell phone, it would seem the soy sauce has indeed chosen you, as it has Dave and John in the mind-bender John Dies at the End.

Slacker vigilantes hunting the supernatural, Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) “handle unusual problems.” Like dealing with that meat monster in the hot girl’s basement – things like that. How did they come to this occupation? Well, that’s just what Dave is going to explain to a curious journalist (Paul Giamatti).

The tale he spills comes together in shades of Cronenberg, Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick, spun with the sensibilities of Sam Raimi circa Evil Dead. And that, my friends, is fine company.

Directed by Don Coscarelli (best known for Phantasm, but personally beloved for Bubba Ho-Tep), John Dies offers a fun hallucination on film. Its trippy logic doesn’t hold up for the full running time, but it’s certainly never dull, it boasts some fun cameos (Clancy Brown is particularly cool), and its “whatevs” style of clever remains surprisingly enjoyable.

3 stars (out of 5)