Tag: Paul Giamatti

The Truman Show (1998)

Jim Carrey starts to wonder if there is more to his life than meets the eye in The Truman Show

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Jim Carrey (Truman Burbank), Ed Harris (Christof), Laura Linney (Hannah Gill/Meryl Burbank), Noah Emmerich (Louis Coltrane/Marlon), Natascha McElhone (Sylvia/Lauren Garland), Holland Taylor (Alanis Montclair/Angela Burbank), Brian Delate (Walter Moore/Kirk Burbank), Paul Giamatti (Simeon), Peter Krause (Truman’s boss), Harry Shearer (Mike Michaelson), Philip Baker Hall (Network executive), John Pleshette (Network executive)

Have you ever fantasised that your whole life was a movie? It would be great wouldn’t it? You’re the star of every scene, the story lines always have a happy ending and you always emerge as the hero. But what if your life really was a massive TV series? What if everyone you had ever met was an actor playing a role? What if every experience in your life had been carefully scripted? What if nothing you knew was a real or even remotely true? That’s no-where near as fun.

Of course the odd thing today is that I suspect there are more than a few people out there who would still consider that a decent pay-off – even if they couldn’t know that they were on television, at least they would be on it. The Truman Show predated much of the surge of reality TV that was to come in the 00s, when shows like Big Brother made putting everyday (at least at first) people into situations and simply watching what happens became TV gold. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is approaching his 30th birthday. Little does he know that his entire life he’s been at the centre of an elaborate TV show and that the hometown he has never left is a giant self-contained film studio. But as incidents begin to pile up, Truman suddenly questions his reality – while the show’s cast and production team work to keep him in ignorance. After all, we can’t let this ratings cash cow die!

With a precise, sharp and intelligent script by Andrew Niccol, Peter Weir’s film is a triumph. It’s partway between drama and satire, but never lets the one compromise another. It could have become a lumpen message film about the intrusion of media into our lives. Instead it’s an acute satire of TV gone mad, with a very real, sympathetic character who we invest in. Effectively the movie works on the same premise as the fictional TV show: the viewers know the world they are seeing is larger than life, but they know the character of Truman is grounded and true. It works as it bases its satirical attacks around a heartfelt story of a man (unwittingly at first) on a quest for freedom.

It’s two horses the film rides extraordinarily well – and even effectively comments on. Throughout the action we cut to the same regular joes watching the show: people in a bar, security cops, a pair of old ladies on a sofa. These people are aware they are watching a show – and watching a man effectively imprisoned – but have their emotions manipulated with ease, first by the producers then by the excitement of Truman’s very real quest. As they gasp and cheer as Truman works his way out of his prison, there is not a shred of acknowledgement to them that buy ‘booing’ the TV network they should also be booing themselves for watching in the first place. Instead they treat it just as another episode of their favourite show, the celebrations as transient and hollow as their tears of joy as the producers reintroducing Truman’s long-lost father in an attempt to ‘explain’ the strange circumstances he’s seen.

The Truman Show itself takes place in a perfect, unintimidating slice of 50’s inspired nostalgia. It’s a perfect picture of Americana – and its conservatism is itself a satire. Of course the producers set the show in the most cosy, comforting setting they could imagine. The rose-tinted past is always something we turn to for comfort viewing (take a look at the success of Downton Abbey). Alongside that, it’s a world run by advertising: Truman’s wife frequently stops to deliver scripted adverts, singing the praises of household products; a pair of old buffers have the job of pushing Truman up against a different advert hoarding every day; Truman’s friend Marlon praises their beer with every sip.

And in the sky: we have the studio itself, run by the shows creator Christof. Superbly played by Ed Harris, as part hipster artist, part messianic genius (“I am the creator” he tells Truman near the end, his voice coming through a beam of skylight, adding after a half-beat “of a television show”), Christof has carefully plotted Truman’s entire life from birth. He partly sees himself as Truman’s father – but he as much sees Truman as a tool he can manipulate for his own ends. A hands-on show-runner, Christof believes himself a genius whose will cannot be questioned. This softly-spoken dictator is a terrifying insight into what happens when self-appointed artistic geniuses can explore their ideas with no regard for morality and no restraints.

Truman himself is a charming, sweet, decent fellow – I suppose if nothing else Christof has done a superb job of bringing him up. But his entire life is a manipulated lie. The whole town is full of subconscious messages encouraging him to stay – as is the advice from his wife and best friend. Most cruelly of all, he has been deliberately traumatised into a terror of water by being made to feel responsible as a boy for the drowning of his father. Christof even boasts of his ingenuity in this “plot line” to help insure Truman would be too scared to ever consider leaving his home.

Jim Carrey was a revelation as Truman – Weir was the first director to refocus his comic mania into something more intimate and true. The part still makes a lot of hay from Carrey’s rubbery comedic chops – its part of Truman’s charm – but he matches it with a Jimmy Stewartish decency and earnestness. As the illusion begins to crack, his bemusement turns to something between disbelief and anger, but never compromises his humanity. You can see why billions of people watched him – and also understand why a man so accommodating and decent has not questioned his life before. Witty, gentle and human it’s a great performance.

But perhaps the film’s greatest strength is Weir’s sharp, clear-eyed, largely unobtrusive direction. The film makes nifty use of all the thousands of cameras contained in Truman’s world – with shots taken from button cams, CCTV, dashboards and all sorts. Its intermixed with normal camera angles, but gives us a beautiful sense of Truman’s world, and the TV world coming together throughout. The pace of the film is perfect and its slow reveal of information delicately done. Weir’s intercutting between ‘fictional’ and real world is superbly judged and the film wears its satire very lightly as well superbly mixing what could have been a dark film of imprisonment and abuse with a lightness and charm. Above all, it manages to both be a compelling story with a sympathetic hero and a sharp-pronged criticism of the shallowness of media and its viewing public.

It might well have been far too ahead of its time when it was released. It looks smarter and smarter each passing year. Truman’s world is an Instagram paradise, and with social media we’ve got even more used to spending our leisure time looking through other people’s lives rather than our own. It’s all part of what helps make Niccol’s script so sharp and prescient. Directed superbly by Weir and wonderfully acted – perhaps most of all by Harris’ Warhol turned dictator – it keeps you entertained, invested and leaves you cheering. Just like the viewers watching Truman being manipulated. Which makes you realise: is the film attacking its audience as much as anyone else? After all, we’d all watch this stuff in real life: look at how we rubberneck at accidents. What’s wrong with us eh?

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson clash on the making of Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks

Director: John Lee Hancock

Cast: Emma Thompson (Pamela Travers), Tom Hanks (Walt Disney), Colin Farrell (Travers Robert Goff), Ruth Wilson (Margaret Goff), Paul Giamatti (Ralph), Bradley Whitford (Don DaGradi), Jason Schwartzman (Richard M Sherman), BJ Novak (Robert B Sherman), Kathy Baker (Tommie), Melanie Paxson (Dolly), Rachel Griffiths (Ellie), Ronan Vibert (Diarmuid Russell)

Walt Disney was a man used to getting what he wanted. And what he wanted more than anything was the rights to PL Travers’ Mary Poppins series. It was his kids favourite books, and he had promised them he would make the movie. It took decades – and Disney had to wait until Travers needed the money – but finally a deal was struck, with Travers having full script approval. So the hyper-English Travers is flown across the Atlantic to Los Angeles where she reacts with a brittle horror to every single suggestion from the Mary Poppins creative team, and distaste at the commercialisation of Disney’s enterprise. Based on the actual recordings (which Travers insisted on) from the script meetings, Emma Thompson is the imperious PL Travers and Tom Hanks the avuncular Walt Disney.

John Lee Hancock’s film is a solid crowd pleaser that, if it feels like it hardly delivers a completely true picture of the making of Mary Poppins, does put together an entertaining and interesting idea of the difficult process of creation and the tensions when writers (who don’t want to change a thing!) clash with film production companies. These problems being made worse by the clashing worlds of the loose, casualness and breezy friendliness of Los Angeles, and the intensely cold, buttoned-up Edwardianism of Travers, hostile to all shows of affection and any touches of sentimentality.

The film gets more than a lot of comic mileage out of these mixed worlds, with Travers’ every look of aghast, repressed, British reserve (“Poor AA Milne” she mutters while manhandingly a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh toy out of her way, followed by “You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety” as she dumps a massive Mickey Mouse cuddily toy against the wall of her bedroom) bound to raise sniggers at both her blunt hostility and cut-glass wit. Against this the American characters – all of them forced to dance to her tune – meet wave after wave of hostility with a practised American friendliness and warmth. It works a treat.

The film walks a fine line with its portrayal of Disney who is both a charming uncle figure and also a savvy and even ruthless businessman. Tom Hanks is spot-on with showing both sides of this man, making it clear how he managed to make so much damn money but also from how he managed to inspire such loyalty from many of his staff. Yes the film soft-peddles on many of Disney’s negatives – from refusing to show a single second of Disney smoking, to no mention of his active union-busting activities – but this is a film focused on Disney the impresario and negotiator. 

And what a person to negotiate with! That the film works is almost exclusively down to Emma Thompson’s imperious performance in the lead role. Thompson has a very difficult job here of turning someone so consistently rude, aggressive, arrogant and unpleasant as Travers (and over half of the film goes by before she says something nice to anyone) into a character we genuinely invest in, care about and laugh with as much as gasp at her rudeness. It’s a real trick from Thompson, adding a great deal if inner pain and vulnerability just below the surface, but only allowing a few beats of letting these feelings out for all the world to see. It makes for a performance that is superbly funny, hugely rude but also someone we end up caring about.

A lot of that spins from the careful recreation of Travers’ past in flashback, particularly her relationship with her father, Travers Goff (played with charm by Colin Farrell), an alcoholic bank manager in Australia when Travers was a child, who lived a life of irresponsibility mixed with bursts of playful, imaginative games with his daughter. It’s the realisation, by the elderly Travers, that her father was feckless and irresponsible that motivates her writing of Mary Poppins, the super-Nanny who flies in and saves not just the whole family, but specifically the father. Equally good in these sequences is Ruth Wilson as the despairing Mrs Goff.

It adds a sadness to the backstory of Travers – and an understanding of why she behaves the way she does – and the film also brings it round to a neat mutual meeting ground between her and Disney, who himself had problems with a father who drove him hard to achieve. It also explains Travers’ growing warmth to her chauffer, played by Paul Giamatti as a loving dad, the one person she demonstrates some affection to within the film.

It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it though, and it can’t resist adding a “happy ending” to the story of Travers finally accepting (even if she denies it) that she enjoys the Mary Poppins film and is moved by the saving of Mr Banks that it contains. In reality of course, Travers hated the film (though claimed some of it was passable) and refused Disney all permission to ever make any sequel. But that hardly matters here, to this fairy tale of saved souls which wants to see Travers saved – even if the truth was far more complex.

The Illusionist (2006)

Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel are wrapped up in the tricks of The Illusionist

Director: Neil Burger

Cast: Edward Norton (Eisenheim), Jessica Biel (Sophie), Paul Giamatti (Inspector Uhl), Rufus Sewell (Crown Prince Leopold), Eddie Marsan (Josef Fischer), Jake Wood (Jurka), Tom Fisher (Willigut), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Young Eisenheim), Eleanor Tomlinson (Young Sophie), Karl Johnson (Doctor)

In 2006, The Illusionist was the other film about nineteenth-century magicians that wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. As such it got rather overlooked, which is unfair as this is a handsomely made, intriguing little puzzle which doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does what it does with a fair amount of invention and beauty.

In turn-of-the-century Vienna, the illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is a revelation – a mystery character whose past is investigated by Police Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) under the orders of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). The Crown Prince feels Eisenheim’s illusions – which suggest at times dark truths in the Prince’s own personal life – are a serious risk to his position. On top of which, there is a secret past romance between Eisenheim and the Prince’s intended wife Countess Sophie (Jessica Biel), and the Prince is not a man to be crossed. So begins a cat-and-mouse game of trick and illusions between Uhl and Eisenheim.

The greatest thing about Neil Burger’s period piece is the grace and beauty with which it has been filmed. Dick Pope’s mixture of sepia tones and candlelit blacks makes for a series of gorgeous images, contrasted perfectly with Philip Glass’ beautiful score. Both contribute hugely to creating an atmosphere of mystical unknowingness around the Vienna locations, and give the film something in every scene to delight the senses.

What works less well is the slightly routine scripting and filmmaking that pulls the film together. For all the beauty with which it is presented, there isn’t quite enough of the original or – for want of a better word – the magical about what we see on the screen. The story is just ever so slightly too familiar, the points it intends to made – be it about the nature of power, or magic, or love, or hope – never quite coalesce into a coherent and clear message that really feels like you are being told something or shown something you haven’t seen in several movies before. 

Instead we see that behind the eyes of even the most obscure and unreadable conjurer there is deep and abiding love – love that will push them to do wild, even morally questionable, things. For others like the Crown Prince, that love is tied in altogether with possession and power and that there is no place for truth. Illusion is in all things: from Eisenheim’s entire life to the Prince’s front as a man of the modern world and his desire to become a dictator. Maybe that might be as close as the film gets to a deeper meaning – that illusion hides and protects our truths. 

As Eisenheim’s tricks get closer and closer to mesmerism and séance, the film suggests that it is a human need to want to see the truth behind tricks. The crowds who see Eisenheim raise the dead in flickering images want to believe it, that they could talk to their own deceased loved ones. Even in his early magic tricks, the less poetic characters of the film see value in the tricks only when they feel they have worked out the illusion behind it. Both are looking for a form of truth in the illusion, but the truth behind the trick is often deeper and more complex than the mechanical process by which it is done.

It’s a shame the film doesn’t tackle these ideas more, and settles for a more traditional “love across the divide” romance, but perhaps it doesn’t quite engage because Eisenheim and Sophie aren’t really interesting enough characters. Edward Norton plays Eisenheim with grace and intelligence, and draws a lot of depth and emotion from scenes that often require him to wordlessly stare. But juggling a character who deliberately conceals the truth and his intentions at every single turn seems slightly to have straitjacketed Norton, an elliptical actor at the best of times. There is something unknowable about him in this film which, while perfect for the character, makes him one you can’t really invest in. Similarly, Jessica Biel (a last minute replacement for Liv Tyler after filming had started) certainly looks the part, and gives Sophie a warmth, but she never really makes an impression as a character. Rooting for these two star-crossed lovers is difficult because we never get a sense of who they are.

Instead the film is dominated by hard-nosed rationalist Inspector Uhl, a man with a curiosity for conjuring, an appetite for power, a determination to get things done, but finally more than a bit of humanity. Paul Giamatti is excellent in the part, playing a role that emerges as the audience surrogate, trying as hard as we are to work out what is real and what is illusion. He doesn’t put a foot wrong with Uhl’s affable professionalism nor his ability to switch to business-like harshness. He’s also adept at playing a man who is the third smartest character in the film, but believes himself to be the smartest. You could also the same for Rufus Sewell’s (also great and clearly having a ball) Crown Prince, a bully who thinks he is an enlightened man.

It’s Uhl whom the film finally bonds with the most, and it’s his attempts to piece together what’s going on that becomes the most engaging thing in the second half of the film. For all the beauty of its making, and the skill that has gone into creating the optical illusions (some of Norton’s sleight of hand tricks in this movie are extraordinary), it’s a film that doesn’t quite satisfy. When the final reveal occurs in the film’s closing moments, you won’t quite be as satisfied as you would expect, perhaps because you won’t really care about Eisenheim or Sophie. Burger has made a handsomely mounted but strangely cold film.

Ironclad (2011)

James Purefoy carries a big sword in nonsense medieval blood bath Ironclad

Director: Jonathan English

Cast: James Purefoy (Thomas Marshall), Brian Cox (William d’Aubigny), Derek Jacobi (Reginald de Cornhill), Kate Mara (Lady Isabel), Paul Giamatti (King John), Charles Dance (Archbishop Stephen Langton), Jason Flemyng (Becket), Jamie Foreman (Jedediah Coteral), Mackenzie Crook (Daniel Marks), Rhys Parry Jones (Wulfstan), Aneurin Barnard (Guy), Vladimir Kulich (Tiberius)

Let’s just take a moment to enjoy the fact that the most expensive film ever made entirely in Wales was directed by a guy called English. After that, you can enjoy the guilty-pleasure hack and blood nonsense of this sort of proto-Game of Thrones,which bears almost as much resemblance to British history as George RR Martin’s souped up re-tread with extra dragons.

Anyway, King John (Paul Giamatti) has signed Magna Carta – as always that document which gave the barons some say in the government is here reimagined as some sort of manifesto for a socialist revolution – but now Rome has told John that he doesn’t need to stick to it after all. So John hires (honestly) a load of Viking warriors to take out his enemies. Yes that is just as silly as it sounds. Before we know it, the barons need to take control of Rochester Castle, a stronghold which is apparently the key to the south of England. So Baron William d’Aubigny (Brian Cox) puts together a “Dirty Dozen” (well Dirty Half Dozen, it’s a British budget after all) to defend the castle, led by Templar knight Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy). Let the siege begin!

If that doesn’t give you an idea of the way the film mixes and matches parts of British history into some sort of heady brew, I don’t know what will. We got King John! We got Magna Carta! We got Templar knights! We got Vikings! All of this is frozen into a hyperviolent mixture of historical epic and “men on a mission” war film, with added limbs flying off left, right and centre. Most of it is delivered at an absurdly energised pace. At least all involved seem aware that they are making a stoopid B movie, rather than some sort of genuine historical epic.

Criticising the history of the supposed historical epic seems completely superfluous, so instead sit back and enjoy the skill with which Jonathan English apes Neil Marshall in his blood letting and imaginative slaughter. Sure, he hasn’t got Marshall’s narrative skill or his ability to carve human interest out of even the most basic cardboard characters. But he still manages to present what we see with enough sense of action and adventure. Ridiculous as it might feel that a tiny group of men holds off an entire legion of King John’s troops, you sort of go with it as the film is shot with enough sense of ragged viciousness that you don’t notice the gaps in the tiny budget (less than a single episode of Game of Thrones). 

The actors all know they are in something rather silly as well. It’s a bizarre mixture of people, from Hollywood star character actors to B-movie stalwarts to Brit TV stars to slumming classical actors. James Purefoy grounds the stuff with his usual commitment and charisma. Just as well he does as Paul Giamatti clearly rocks up in the spirit of a lark, hammily overacting to such a ludicrous degree that he sounds like John Adams on a bad acid trip. It’s a surprise they don’t turn him on the walls of Rochester Castle and let him chew through the defences. Between these two hardly anyone else gets a look in, although Brian Cox does well as the brave leader of the castle who suffers a particularly brutal death involving mutilation and imaginative use of a catapult. 

Some typically subtle restrained work from Paul Giamatti

There are some impressive set pieces and some very stirring bits of head mashing, limb slicing violence but the overall plot is completely bog standard, as if with all that investment they either didn’t have time to put a story together or felt that they needed to make something that would appeal as much as possible to the lowest common denominator in order to recoup the costs. But at least there is a nice sense of growing comradeship between this hardy gang fighting against the odds and the film gets some sense of honour and duty being causes worth dying for against tyrants. I mean, it’s not there in spades, but it’s there.

And if you like this sort of B movie hack and dash stuff you’ll probably actually rather like this. Heck I’ve seen it twice, and I found the second viewing actually rather good fun in particular, especially as I knew going into it the entire film was an absolutely absurd pile of nonsense designed to just let you watch blood spray across the screen and heads depart bodies. Roll with it – put your critical facilities on hold and forget the history – and you will rather enjoy its earnest B movie antics.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Spider-Man retreats in full flight from the shocking explosion of this film behind him

Director: Marc Webb

Cast: Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Jamie Foxx (Max Dillon/Electro), Dane DeHaan (Harry Osborn/Green Goblin), Colm Feore (Donald Menken), Felicity Jones (Felicia Hardy), Paul Giamatti (Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino), Sally Field (Aunt May), Campbell Scott (Richard Parker), Embeth Davidtz (Mary Parker), Marton Csorkas (Dr Kafka), Chris Cooper (Norman Osborn)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was set to launch a Spider-Manfranchise that “would last a THOUSAND YEARS!!!”. It didn’t. In fact this bloated, poorly constructed, overlong mess killed those plans stone dead. It says a lot that a film which took $709 million worldwide is considered a flop. But the reaction to the film was so mehthat there was no desire to see any further films about this Spider-Man. On every count the film is a catastrophic failure.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is enjoying the life of a super-hero, while struggling to maintain his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) due to his guilt over her father’s death. That sentence, by the way, demonstrates how schizophrenic this film’s tone is: a hero who loves life and simultaneously is plagued with guilt? He’s also obsessed by finding out what happened to his parents (killed off in a superfluous pre-credits flashback, setting up a mystery the film loses all interest in). At the same time, he must take on obsessive loner fan Max turned supervillain Electro (Jamie Foxx), and old friend Harry Osborn turned supervillain Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan).

After a so-so remake of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, Sony seemingly decided to skip Spider-Man 2 and jump straight to a remake of the reviled Spider-Man 3. Many of that film’s disastrous mistakes are made again: romantic tension that never feels real, action sequences that feel like trailers and, worst of all, stuffing the film to the gills with villains (at least four characters can lay claim to being major primary or secondary antagonists). It also makes its own mistakes, chucking in endless references to a dull, confusing ‘mystery’ around Peter’s parents (that will never now be resolved).

On top of all that, there is something so nakedly grasping about Amazing Spider-Man 2 it’s almost impossible to love. It’s such a greedy film that almost every conversation and stray camera shot tries to set-up potential future movies (the low point being a camera pan down a room full of devices that will become the weapons of future baddies). The plot gets constantly drifts down side alleys as it frantically tries to establish enough plots for the studio to keep churning out films over the next five years. This also means it goes on forever without any real sense of impetus developing in the story.  The action is so nakedly shot with an eye on the trailer, that nearly each fight is literally shot with a crowd of people watching behind barriers, cheering events on.

Whatever happened to the trick of making a successful franchise being to make a good movie? Imagine a film focused on a single villain plotline, and played that off against a relationship drama (something like, say, Spider-Man 2). That might have been something worth seeing, that might have made you think “well I enjoyed that, I wouldn’t mind seeing another one”. But this film is little more than an extended trailer for films to come – it’s as soulless and empty as a piece of marketing puff.

Any ‘emotional’ moments are placed so blatantly as filler between the action that they carry no resonance. Does anyone give a toss if Gwen Stacy goes to London or not? Was anyone actually moved at all when she (spoiler!) dies at the end? For all of Spider-Man 3’s faults, at least when Harry Osborn went bad it resonated, as audiences had seen his and Peter’s relationship play out over two films. Here Harry is introduced, the next scene he and Peter openly say they are best friends, then they barely spend any further time together before Harry’s “shocking” volte-face. If the film can’t be bothered to spend any time earning it, why should I spend any time investing in it?

Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker has his fans, but I’ve found him (in both films) an insufferable, cocky prick. Garfield is a very good actor, but his direction to play Parker as a young buck completely fails. His wisecracking persona works as Spider-Man, but falls flat as Peter, who never seems particularly sweet, relatable or endearing in a way Tobey Maguire managed so well. The parental plotline doesn’t help here either: having spent the first film not really giving a toss about the death of Uncle Ben, here he outright obsesses over his parents in a way that just doesn’t ring true, particularly as it carries with it an implicit rejection of Aunt May. His borderline controlling/stalkerish behaviour with Gwen Stacy is also pretty hard to stomach (he spends half the film telling her what to do, the other half either following her or openly stating he will never let her go – okay weirdo…)

It’s quite damning that despite all this, Garfield (and to be fair, Emma Stone) is the best thing in this lifeless pile of stodge. Jamie Foxx is so hilariously miscast as Electro it skewers the whole movie (surely part of the reason why he is in it so little). Foxx can’t resist showing the audience all the time that he (the actor) is far smarter, cooler and popular than the character – his contempt for the role drips off the screen. DeHaan overacts wildly as Harry, bested only by Giamatti’s cartoonish overblown shouting. Field cashes her cheque with professionalism as Aunt May.

People aren’t stupid. They can tell when they are being ripped off. And they can tell when a studio flings bangs and bucks at the screen with no heart and soul behind them, when a film’s been made by people who want to fleece fanboys, rather than create something that speaks to their love of the material. It’s the problem with both of these Garfield Spider-Man films (and to a certain extent Raimi’s last one). They are soulless, dead films made by committees. They listen to all the worst cries of the fans and then try to give them everything at once. They end up giving them nothing. Which is what this film is: a big, empty pile of nothing.

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Pacino and Depp deliver low-key, carefully controlled, sensitive performances: how often do you get to write that?

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Al Pacino (Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Joseph Pistone/Donnie Brasco), Michael Madsen (Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano), Bruno Kirby (Nicky Santora), Anne Heche (Maggie Pistone), James Russo (“Paulie” Cersani), Željko Ivanek (Tim Curley), Gerry Becker (Dean Blandford), Robert Miano (Al “Sonny Red” Indelicato), Tim Blake Nelson, Paul Giamatti (FBI Technicians)

The Mafia film genre is a crowded market, so it’s a brave film maker who enters it with something a little different. But we get that with Donnie Brasco, which focuses on the bottom rungs of the Mafia ladder, suggesting that being a low-ranking member of “this thing of ours” is in many ways quite similar to being a corporate drone in the big city, only with more killing.

Joseph Pistone aka Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) is an undercover FBI agent, infiltrating the New York Mafia. He wins the trust of “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a Mafia hitman. Drawn deeper into the Mafia world, the pressure builds on Pistone/Brasco, who slowly becomes more and more indistinguishable from the criminals he spends his time with – and feels guilty about the deadly fate Lefty will meet if the Mafia discover he inadvertently introduced a rat into the family.

Newell’s film (from Paul Attanasio’s excellent script) is a dry deconstruction of the gangster life, bringing it closer to the grind of the 9-5. The criminals put in long hours to earn the income they need to push up to those above them. Class distinctions abound – in one scene, Sonny Black (a good performance of ambition and resentment from Michael Madsen) forces a smile onto his face while mob bosses laugh openly at his dress sense. Lefty whines like a mule about everything from his lack of recognition to how put-upon he is (never has a mantra about 26 hits over a lifetime sounded more like complaints about constant filing requests). He could easily be mistaken half the time for a harrassed office junior who never made the grade. When violence comes, it’s sudden, graphic, confused and brutal – a hit in a basement goes far from smoothly with one victim struggling for his life while another screams in pain.

On the other hand, the gangsters are also suggested to be maladjusted teens who never grew up. The more time Donnie spends with them, the less and less capable he becomes of relating to (or even communicating with) his wife and family. The gangsters have a routine lack of empathy for each other and treat the rules of “our thing” like a boys’ clubhouse. Many of their actions have an ill-thought-out juvenility to them: Sonny at one point steals a lion for Lefty as a gift – in a bizarre scene immediately afterwards, Lefty and Donnie feed it hamburgers through the window while it sits in the back seat of Donnie’s car. On a work-trip in Florida, the gangsters behave like kids – mucking around in the pool, delightedly going down waterflumes, burying Lefty in the sand on the beach while he sleeps. Even Lefty is overcome like a star-struck teen when meeting a famed Florida boss.

It’s not surprising that Donnie and Lefty, both outsiders in a way, are drawn together as kindred spirits in this strange, unbalanced world. Donnie obviously is an FBI agent, but Lefty is a world-weary old-timer, with a sense of honour who seems (apart from his ease with killing and violence) to be the most “normal” of the gangsters. The film is a careful construction of the growth of loyalty between these characters – particularly the slow development of Donnie’s feelings of genuine friendship towards Lefty. What’s effective is that this is a gradual process without a definable key moment. Instead, it becomes rather touching as Donnie starts to avoid moving closer to better “contacts” in order to remain close to Lefty. Donnie Brasco might be one of the few films that really gets a type of male friendship, and the unspoken emotional bonds that underpin them.

Perhaps the best things about Donnie Brasco are the two wonderful performances we get from actors who never knowlingly underplay. Watching this and Ed Wood is a reminder of the actor Johnny Depp could have been, before clowning in Pirates of the Caribbean seemed to shatter his focus. Brasco/Pistone is a brilliantly low-key presentation of a fractured personality. At first, the differentiation between the two personalities is distinct and clear – but as the film progresses, Depp allows the two to almost c/ollapse into each other. Everything from his body language to his manner of speaking slowly repositions itself as he becomes more consumed by the gangster world. Depp is also very good at not losing track of Pistone’s horror at murder and violence, while allowing the Brasco persona to take part in its aftereffects. The quiet building of guilt in his eyes at the fate he is creating for Lefty is also gently underplayed, making it more effective.

However, this is Al Pacino’s movie. It’s certainly Pacino’s last great performance: with the added frisson that he’s Michael Corleone demoted to the bottom rung of the ladder, Pacino is magnetic. Lefty is a put-upon whiner, who still has a charisma of his youth that draws Donnie (and others) in. A man of strong moral principles, who treats Donnie with a fatherly regard, uncomfortable with much of the ostentation of his fellow gangsters, he’s also a ruthless killer who blithely shrugs off his killing of an old friend. All Pacino’s bombast is only rarely deployed for impact – instead Lefty is a low-key, almost sad figure, whose chance in life has passed by.

One extraordinary scene late on deserves particular mention. I won’t spoil things too much, but Lefty prepares to leave the house after a phone call full of bad news. Carefully, sadly, he smartens himself up then returns (after saying goodbye to his wife) to gently remove his valuables and leave them in a drawer for his wife – he even carefully leaves the drawer ajar so she can find it. Setting himself before leaving the house, he takes a small look around. It’s a beautifully gentle scene, which could be overloaded with meaning from another actor, but Pacino plays it with such quiet but intense focus, and such careful precision it works brilliantly. Take a look at the scene here (warning spoilers!)

Newell’s strength as an actor’s director is apparent in all the performances, and Donnie Brasco is a film of many wonderful scenes and moments. The film never loses track of the danger of undercover heart – and several striking scenes have Pistone close to being discovered. The film is not perfect: the aim of the FBI investigation, and the impact Donnie’s work are never really made clear and the scenes involving Pistone’s homelife feel far more predictable and conventional than the rest of the movie (Anne Heche has a thankless part). But when it focuses on the two leads, and their dynamism together, it’s a damn fine film. It’s not going to challenge Goodfellas as a story of low-key hoods, but it’s certainly a worthy addition to cinema’s mafia films.

The Ides of March (2011)

George Clooney is a Presidential candidate with feet of clay in this bitter indictment of American politics

Director: George Clooney

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Stephen Meyers), George Clooney (Governor Mike Morris), Evan Rachel Wood (Molly Stearns), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul Zara), Paul Giamatti (Tom Duffy), Marisa Tomei (Ida Horowicz), Jeffrey Wright (Senator Franklin Thompson), Jennifer Ehle (Cindy Morris), Gregory Itzin (Jack Stearns), Max Minghella (Ben Harpen)

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an ambitious young political advisor on the presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). However, scandal bubbles under the surface of the campaign and Meyers finds himself a pawn in the power struggles between his boss Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the rival campaign manager Tom (Paul GIamatti), as well as increasingly drawn to a young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) with a secret.

Like some of the work of the current crop of actor-directors (Clooney and Affleck being the prime examples) this feels like a thematic remake of classic (better) films from the 1970s, in this case Robert Redford’s classic The Candidate. Like that film, this one explores a politician whose dynamism, photogenic appeal and liberalism hide feet of clay. The film takes a supremely cynical view of modern politics, presenting a world where even idealists will (when push comes to shove) do anything to assure their position because they believe that only they can deliver the change the country needs. As Rich Hall said in the build-up to the most recent election, it takes a special kind of ego to say “I’ve looked at this countries problems and what you need to solve them is me”.

To get this idea across a bit more, it probably would have helped to get more sense of what Morris (and his rival Pullman) stands for. The film tries to get round this with the shorthand of casting Clooney as Morris: we all know Gorgeous George is a Good Thing (although I’d also add that Clooney’s smoothly groomed, almost too-perfect good looks give him plausibility as a character drenched in hypocrisy behind his charismatic smirk). Instead we have to take it for granted, from his appearance and few phrases about green politics and job creation, that Morris is a Kennedy-like force for change. The film rather weights the decks by presenting no-one in this political game as being truly idealistic or in it for any other reason than personal gain or the thrill of the game – even Morris, a force for the film argues good, is shown to be totally hypocritical and devoid of personal empathy, believing that any means are justified by the end.

Gosling’s Stephen Meyers is the heart of the film, and it’s his growing corruption the film charts. Meyers starts as a slightly uneasy mix of professional politician, cynical about the media and the public, and idealist eager to change the country for the better. Gosling’s performance is the embodiment of the struggle between these good and bad angels, and Gosling has the right balance of naivety and ruthless careerism in his looks to capture this. Having seen this film once before, I actually found it more rewarding this time: Meyers is a cynic who wants to be an idealist.

Slightly less clear, however, is Evan Rachel Wood’s role as an intern. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say her role is largely a tragic one – but the film never quite shapes her as a real person. She’s a model of the intelligent, sexy young woman, more of a collection of beats than a real person (however winningly Wood plays her). Her eventual tragedy is something that happens rather than something that feels like it happens to her – and the story is about the effect this has on the male characters around her rather than what it might have meant for her. She’s a well designed plot device rather than a person.

The film does have an interesting stance on politics – even if it already feels outdated in our new Trumpian, post-truth days. Hoffman and Giamatti do good work as contrasting political fixers at opposite ends of the idealist and cynic spectrum. The vision of politics has something designed to support news cycles rather than to serve the people feels like it has more than some truth behind it. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s well made and has some brains behind it. And it does actually grow better on a second viewing.