Private Life (2018)

Another excellent recent American comedy-drama film is this one by Tamara Jenkins, returning after over a decade since her previous film (not, apparently, a break that was self-imposed) to make a film for Netflix, which turned out to be one of the year’s finest. As ever, it’s a relationship — and the stress of trying to conceive a child — which provides the dramatic notes, but there’s a finely attuned sense of comedy throughout.


Every time I think about watching a film with Paul Giamatti, I get very unenthusiastic — inexplicably so, because every time I actually watch Paul Giamatti give a performance, I think he’s a really sensitive and finely-honed actor who pulls you into his characters in a way that not many others do, although frankly Kathryn Hahn is also pretty amazing at that as well, especially here. Watching another feature about well-off New Yorkers with fractious private lives seems like being condemned to a particular circle in American indie filmmaking hell — because haven’t we seen enough of that — and yet the subject matter and the way it’s done is really so very skilful. It doesn’t do the big attention-seeking formal stuff that you see in say Roma (or if I’m feeling less generous, the films of Noah Baumbach or Wes Anderson, or any of those other NYC auteurs), but it’s just so carefully focused on the plot that it almost passes beneath notice. There is exquisite comedy, and also a real pain here that the comic touches masks to a certain extent but also brings out really well, about the way these two characters want a child but due to various biological causes, are prevented from achieving — and yet they have some really strong relationships with younger people which it takes them some time to realise, but that also becomes a source of pain in the end. I guess what I’m saying is I recognise these characters, and maybe even aspects of myself (not in the ‘having a child’ part, admittedly), and it feels sad to think about these things, but it’s also a film which is trying to map a way through one’s middle age.

Private Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tamara Jenkins; Cinematographer Christos Voudouris Χρήστος Βουδούρης; Starring Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 28 December 2018.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

What’s most surprising to me about this biopic of seminal late-1980s rap band N.W.A. is that it qualifies for my New Year’s Resolution by having a female co-writer. It’s not surprising in the sense of FINALLY PROVING that women can write rounded and realistic male characters (I jest), but because the women in the film are so peripheral to the story as to be little more than gyrating appendages in music videos (aside perhaps from Eazy-E’s widow Tomica, who’s also a producer on the film). It is, indeed, a very male-centred film about a group of friends and their rise from impoverished backgrounds in LA’s Compton neighbourhood to musical dominance as the progenitors of the ‘gangsta rap’ style. The film’s central players are introduced by on-screen captions, with the three most prominent members of the group being Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., as an embittered and angry young man), the focused Dr. Dre (Jason Mitchell), and the guy that helps to bring them all together, Eazy-E (Corey Hawkins), who true to his name has a more laidback lifestyle — which is to say, there are plenty of women and drugs involved.

The arc of the film is classic Hollywood biopic — rags to riches, complicated by egos and money — but in focusing its story on black characters, the film already moves some way towards redressing the whitewashing of (musical) history engaged in by other mainstream productions. Indeed, the casting of Paul Giamatti as manager Jerry Heller recalls his almost identical work in a very similar (and far whiter) film about Brian Wilson only a few months ago, and if Love & Mercy seemed to impart a good sense of how its music was made, Straight Outta Compton is most focused on positioning its protagonists within the wider social context of racial discrimination — looping in the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. However, perhaps even more than that, the film is concerned with the band’s contractual and label disputes, which is where Giamatti’s character comes in, not to mention Suge Knight and his roster of stars (Tupac Shakur pops up briefly, for example).

There are undoubtedly valid criticisms of the rampant chauvinism — which after all in a sense reflects the culture of this era and of these protagonists — and there’s also the not unrelated issue of the way the film occludes some of the characters’ more disturbing history with women, but that’s not really something for me to address. Suffice to say that it’s been written about by black women, whether those involved (Dee Barnes on Gawker.com), or in articles both critical of the film’s representation of women and more lenient (the latter two links from Bitch Magazine). However, for what it is, it’s fantastically accomplished, and as one might expect, it’s the live music scenes which are most compelling. Ice Cube’s anger is not only clearly contextualised, it’s sadly still necessary, which is what gives a song like “Fuck tha Police” so much power even after more than 25 years, meaning that N.W.A.’s music still has plenty to offer to audiences, whatever race they may be.

Straight Outta Compton film posterCREDITS
Director F. Gary Gray; Writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti; Length 147 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 31 August 2015.

Love & Mercy (2014)

To be honest, I’m no huge fan of Brian Wilson or his music. Sure I have a copy of Pet Sounds and I acknowledge its undoubted artistry, but there’s a level of lionisation with Wilson’s work that sits uneasily with me. “Genius” is a word apt to be applied to creative white guys and the film uses it in a rather pointless final card, but at the very least he’s a virtuoso. Still, if you’re going to do a biopic of the man, this one certainly seems to take the right way, overlapping narratives (60s Brian played by Paul Dano, and 80s Brian played by John Cusack) to echo the way that Wilson himself juxtaposes harmonies and keys in his music. Cusack’s (lack of) resemblance to Wilson has already been covered pretty well elsewhere, but in large part he’s just a foil to Elizabeth Banks’s Melinda, who helps him to come out of the heavily-medicated dark hole that his doctor (an almost Grand Guignol villain turn from Paul Giamatti) keeps him in. That story feels like a bit of a cop-out (history is written by the winners after all), and Banks is almost too saintly, though she’s always been a sympathetic performer. However, when the film focuses on Dano’s remarkably poised performance, crafting music in the studio by channelling his wayward creative mind, it really hits its stride.

Love and Mercy film posterCREDITS
Director Bill Pohlad; Writers Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015.