Love and Mercy


Brian Wilson, just chillin'.

Brian Wilson, just chillin’.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Nikki Wright, Tyson Ritter, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Claudia Graf, Tonja Kahlens, Carolyn Stotesbery. Directed by Bill Pohlad

The word “genius” is often thrown about the media like a demented Frisbee, landing on both the deserving and the undeserving. Of the former category, one would have to include Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound. Those unfamiliar with popular music who think of the Beach Boys as the band solely of “California Girls” and “Surfing USA” clearly missed some of the great music of the era, exemplified with “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.”

Wilson, like many authentic geniuses, was tormented throughout most of his life. As a young man (Dano) when he was churning out hit after hit for the Beach Boys, his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father Murray (Camp), himself a frustrated former musician belittled his son’s accomplishments, especially after the band fired him as their manager. “In five years, nobody will remember you,” he sneers at one point, “Nobody will remember the Beach Boys.” Clearly, he was wrong.

However, Brian’s insecurities blossomed into full-fledged paranoia, exacerbated by drug abuse. The pressures of creating not only great music but music that sells began to take its toll not just on Brian but also within the band; Mike Love (Abel), the band’s lead vocalist, resisted change vigorously, wishing to stay with a tried and true formula, even though as Brian foresaw, musical tastes were changing rapidly and the Beach Boys were just as rapidly becoming irrelevant. Brian’s marriage to wife Marilyn (Darke) disintegrated and as his mental health deteriorated, he would enter a period of reclusiveness (rarely leaving his bed) and morbid weight gain, at one time clocking in at well over 300 pounds. Drug-addled and plagued by erratic behavior, his family worried for his health and sanity.

In the 1980s he came under the care of radical therapist Eugene Landy (Giamatti) who became his legal guardian. Landy separated Brian from his brothers and mother (his father had passed away in 1973) and essentially oversaw every facet of his life, making decisions for him. Brian at this time (Cusack) was a shell of a man, functioning but just barely so. During this period he met the beautiful blonde ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) at a Cadillac agency where she sold cars. The two hit it off and began dating, under the strict supervision of Landy who eventually made the couple separate. Ledbetter, concerned about Brian’s worsening condition, fought for and achieved Landy’s removal. She would eventually marry Brian and the two remain a couple today.

Pohlad has more experience as a producer than as a director, although he has been associated with Terrence Malick somewhat of late and that approach has served him well here, refusing to take the route of standard musical biopics and instead takes the more fragmented approach of the Todd Bridges Dylan bio I’m Not There which may have as much to do with employing that film’s writer Oren Moverman as writer here.

One thing (of many) Pohlad did right was the casting. Dano is a near-perfect choice for the young Brian, capturing both his fragile emotional state and his absolute mastery in the studio. The real Brian Wilson’s experiments with psychotropic drugs would lead him to auditory hallucinations that he still suffers from today; not only does Pohlad really give us a sense of what Brian was hearing (with snippets of classic Beach Boys riffs in amazing mash-ups by film composer Atticus Ross) but Dano sells it, showing Brian’s fascination and occasional frustration with the music he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. We see how tormented he was outside the studio and how happy he was in it; as Brian and his bandmates gather around the microphone to sing the harmonies that justifiably made them famous, only then does Dano’s Brian Wilson look truly happy.

As the middle-aged Bryan, Cusack turns in one of the best performances of his career – and as many of you might know, I’m a big fan of Cusack so that’s saying something. The older Brian is a completely different person than the younger one, although they have much in common – which is what inspired Pohlad to cast two actors who don’t really resemble each other to play him. This Brian is damaged goods, completely dominated and cowed by the powerful personality of Landy who exudes cult-like control over the musician. Cusack resists the temptation to make Wilson a collection of tics and neuroses; he seems like a fairly normal guy until you spend a goodly amount of time with him.

Giamatti may well be the best villain of the summer; he plays Landy as a controlling tyrant with a terrible temper. He seems nice enough and compassionate at first glance but soon the sadistic side shows through the cracks. Giamatti imbues Landy with enough soft-voiced charm to make him seem like a coiled snake, able to strike at any moment. It’s a compelling performance that if this were released in the fall might be getting some serious Supporting Actor buzz. He might anyway.

Banks gets short shrift here because the other performances are so strong, but that doesn’t mean she’s a slouch. In fact, although at first Melinda seems like essentially just a pretty face, we get to see the core of steel inside her as the movie progresses. The one false note lies in the writing; I think that it would be natural for others to think Melinda is a gold digger – Landy brings it up near the end of the movie. However, it really isn’t addressed in the movie, how others other than Brian and Landy are reacting to her. I would have liked to see what the perception of her was among the Wilson family, although to be fair it’s likely that Brian upon whose recollections the movie is based may not have known.

Pohlad tries to give us a sense of what Brian was experiencing, using sound and lighting effects to give us a sense of his torment. I heard that some moviegoers walked out during one of these sequences at a screening attended by one of my friends. I didn’t find them especially offensive, but clearly some did for whatever reason.

Having seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew recently and knowing that  they were involved with recording the Beach Boys music in the studio gave me an extra perspective into the film. I’m not saying it’s required viewing prior to watching Love & Mercy but it certainly is an advantage.

This is definitely one of the best movies to arrive so far this year. Incendiary performances, imaginative storytelling, terrific music and insight into not so much the music that Brian Wilson created but the mental illness that may or may not have gone hand in hand with it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances all around. Captures both eras nicely. Of course, the music.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting Wilson’s mental issues may be confusing or even disturbing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Definitely some adult themes, depictions of drug use and a fair amount of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio scenes in which Brian and the Beach Boys are recording Pet Sounds were filmed in the actual studios where the iconic album was recorded. Most of the Wrecking Crew were portrayed by Brian Wilson’s current band and Dano used actual studio recordings to stop the band and instruct the musicians as to what he wanted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Not There
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Time Lapse

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The Host (2013)


Diane Kruger and her cool ride.

Diane Kruger and her cool ride.

(2013) Science Fiction (Open Road) Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Frances Fisher, Chandler Canterbury, Boyd Holbrook, Lee Hardee, Scott Lawrence, Mustafa Harris, Shawn Carter Peterson, Raeden Greer, Bokeem Woodbine, Rachel Roberts, Marcus Lyle Brown, Jhil McEntyre. Directed by Andrew Niccol   

No more war. No starvation. The contributing factors to climate change eradicated and the ecology restored back to balance. No lying, no violence and the world living in happiness and harmony. Sounds too good to be true, right?

Of course. You see, there’s a catch to living in a perfect world; an alien parasite, calling themselves Souls, have invaded the planet, taking over the bodies of humans and eradicating their memories and personalities. Although our bodies remain alive, that which makes us individuals is gone. In essence, this alien invasion is overwriting us and as a result, we’re slowly going extinct. You can always tell the infected bodies however by a strange glowing ring of light in the iris of the eye.

There are some stragglers however and infected humans, called Seekers, chase them down and bring them to the city to have their parasite inserted (through an incision in the back of the neck). The Souls look sort of like sparkly Sea Anemones with thin languorous tentacles with fiber optic cables; very pretty to the eye but not something you’d want inside you.

One of those stragglers, Melanie Stryder (Ronan) particularly doesn’t want those things inside her. She and her boyfriend Jared (Irons) and her little brother Jamie (Canterbury) are discovered by Seekers; she leads them away from her men but cornered, chooses to throw herself out of a window to the asphalt below rather than be taken.

Sadly, they take her anyway, heal her wounds and stick the Sea Anemone…er, Soul…into her neck. The Soul that inhabits her is named Wanderer and the Seeker (Kruger) who captured her wants to know about any other humans that Melanie might have known about. At first Wanderer is very co-operative but to the Soul’s surprise Melanie is still in there, putting up a fight and generally acting out. In fact from time to time Melanie can still exact enough control to make Wanderer’s body do what Melanie wants but those moments are few and far between.

But they are coming more often and Melanie’s memories are enacting a strange kind of sway over Wanderer. Melanie convinces Wanderer to escape the facility they’re being held in and eventually Melanie leads the Wanderer to the New Mexico desert where dehydrated and exhausted, she’s found by her grizzled Uncle Jeb (Hurt) who takes her to where he’s established a refuge for a group of uninfected humans; the inside of an extinct volcano and I really must admit, I like what he’s done with the place, planting a wheat field inside the caldera using banks of mirrors to reflect the sunlight into the cone. There are also thermal streams in the cave which not only provide drinking water but bathing opportunities. If only they had a monorail and sharks with frickin’ lasers on their fins.

Wanderer/Melanie’s presence isn’t greeted with joy; in fact, only Uncle Jeb thinks that Melanie is still in there. Jared, who along with Jamie has found his way to the volcano, is all for killing her right away as his friend Kyle (Holbrook) is inclined to do. Jamie is eventually convinced as is Ian (Abel) who eventually falls in love with Wanderer (who is re-christened Wanda) and soon Melanie’s entreaties that she is still there are believed although it makes things a bit awkward since double dating between Wanda and Ian and Melanie and Jared is problematic.

Still, the Seeker is furious at having lost her Soul so she goes after it with a vengeance and when an ambush goes terribly wrong, the Seeker kind of loses it and violates the codes of non-violence. Can the remaining humans continue to survive with a technologically advanced foe wanting to re-populate their bodies with Sea Anemones….I mean Souls?

It all sounds kind of preposterous really but actually the concept is intriguing. The Souls are actually pretty much benign and other than taking over our bodies are pretty nice sorts and it’s true that we’ve pretty much screwed up our planet and society left to our own devices. However this aspect isn’t really explored much; the direction is to pander to the young female audience that author Stephenie Meyer, who penned the novel this is based on (and is best known for being the creator of the Twilight saga), has cultivated.

The love triangle is a theme in her works to date (although her bibliography is admittedly pretty small). It is appealing to a young girl to have two hunky guys moon-eyed in love with her and Meyer and Niccol play up that aspect. Melanie is a plucky heroine who as played by Ronan is a bit stronger than Bella Swan and less reliant on those around her. However there isn’t much action here – a lot of dialogue takes place in Melanie’s head (or Wanderer’s head if you prefer) and that isn’t terribly cinematic no matter how you play it.

In fact there’s a hellacious amount of dialogue here, far too much to support this kind of movie and thus it gets a little bit boring to be honest. Even if they’d chosen to go cerebral and explore the whole “is freedom worth losing control for” which dovetails nicely into our post-911 paranoia, you’d expect there to be a lot less exposition in something like that.

The visuals are nice and the cave set is nifty. I also like the chrome-plated vehicles the Seekers use. The acting is solid if not exemplary, with the reliable Hurt making Jeb a salt of the earth sort that audiences tend to click with. Ronan is a terrific actress but comes off a bit petulant in places and there is soooo much kissing that it begins to get a bit old – and I like kissing.

This is one of those I wish movies. I wish it hadn’t been quite as long. I wish it had a bit more passion from the cast, although given that the Souls are written as emotionless creatures there’s at least an explanation for that. I wish it had given credit to its audience as having as much intellect as hormonal drive. I wish American culture would stop pandering to the lowest common denominator and start aiming higher. I wish I could have given it a higher rating but frankly, it just didn’t earn it. It’s not a bad movie although I’m sure some will think it so simply because they’re not part of the target audience – it’s just not as good a movie as it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice visuals. Consistently well-acted by its predominantly young cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Prefers to play to teen girl hormones than explore the potential genuinely interesting issues it raises. Oddly low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scenes of teen sexuality and some violence but nothing that you wouldn’t see on network television.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before Diane Kruger accepted the role of the Seeker, Haley Atwell, Claire Danes and Eva Green all turned it down.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100; the critics ripped it a new one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: On the Road