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

Advertisements

The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life

Brat Pitt's so hungry he could eat a baby.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Joanna Going, Will Wallace, Cole Cockburn, Brayden Whisenhunt, Irene Bedard, Dustin Allen. Directed by Terrence Malick

We have a connection to life that goes back to the first single celled organisms and indeed to the Big Bang itself. Some see the universe as a series of coincidences both fortunate and otherwise; others see the hand of a higher power involved.

For the O’Brien family of Waco, Texas in the 1950s, the choice was simple – the path of nature and the path of grace. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, perhaps literally. We flash forward to the parents being informed of the death of their son at age 19. We are then shown the beginning of time (if you’re going to make a movie, you might as well begin at the beginning but Malick took that a bit literally), the beginnings of life as the first single celled organisms begin to split and divide into more complex creatures such as, say, dinosaurs.

Be that is as may, Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) is far more concerned with preparing his sons for adulthood with fierce determination and will. Some would say he’s borderline abusive – he is certainly strict – and he is also loving. Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) is more of a path of grace sort, playful and nurturing, shielding her boys from the worst of Mr. O’Brien’s ill humors.

There are three O’Brien boys but the oldest is Jack (McCracken) and it is through his eyes that we see these events, both as a child and as an adult (Penn). The adult Jack is pensive, rarely speaking and apparently a successful architect. He is distant from his wife (Going) and not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his dead brother R.L. (Eppler) whom he was closest to as a boy.

The boyhood in Waco is seen through the blinders of nostalgia; idyllic summer days, family picnics at the local swimming pool (where the fleeting nature of life is first encountered by a young Jack) and a DDT truck that dispenses clouds of toxic pesticide that was to his way of thinking the opportunity to dance in the clouds.

But there are snakes in Eden too. The arguments of his parents briefly glimpsed through open windows and overheard through closed doors. His own inner rage at never being good enough in his dad’s eyes, his love/hate rivalry with his brother, and the seductive call of doing something wrong and getting away with it. Young master Jack has the ability to be a royal douchebag upon occasion.

Our mortality is inevitable; what happens to those who pass? And why would a good and loving deity allow a mother to suffer the loss of a child before his time? Answers to questions like this are never forthcoming. It is the path of grace that tells us that we must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should. That doesn’t make it any easier to cope.

Describing this movie is very much like juggling Jell-O. It’s amorphous and not always well-defined. Just when you think you have something, it slips through your fingers. The first part of the movie is presented in a series of images that aren’t really fully developed scenes as such, but more like fragmented memories. There is little dialogue early on other than portentous voice-over narration.

Malick is one of the most imaginative directors working. He has never been prolific (this is only his seventh movie since 1973) but he has dedicated himself to quality, crafting his films with meticulous detail and this is no exception. He recreates the Waco of his childhood and it feels organic, with unlocked front doors, mothers keeping an eye on their children and the other children in the neighborhood, and strolls down the street.

A quote from the Book of Job opens the movie and it has been suggested that this is a thinly-veiled translation of the Biblical story. While I agree there are references to the notorious account and the story does show some parallels, I don’t think the director’s intention was to update Job in a more modern setting, albeit one nearly 60 years prior to now.

The movie becomes a bit more traditional in its storytelling about a third of the way through, with the focus on the dynamic between young Jack and his parents. Young McCracken does a decent enough job, speaking with that petulant Texas twang that only the young men of Texas know how to properly effect with the proper mix of sullen and respectful. Texas boys are adept at making “yes sir” sound like “screw you.”

It’s Pitt who takes over the movie. His presence is so powerful that even when he’s off-screen his presence is palpable. He is hard on his children but he is equally as fierce in his love for them. He is strong in his hugs, and also strong in his smacking around his sons – which was perfectly acceptable in the culture of the time, although some will look upon this treatment with aghast expressions.

Chastain is also a presence but in a different way. She is a nurturing, enfolding presence. She is only seen as sexual when she is in the process of procreating, as if the only use for her sexuality is to provide her husband with sons. Mrs. O’Brien is strong in her own way and while post-feminist sorts may find the portrayal a bit misogynistic, it isn’t in the least. Chastain’s task is to embody the ideal mom – not in an Ozzie and Harriet way, but as a nurturing spirit. Mrs. O’Brien is almost ethereal here, at home with angels both literally and figuratively.

This is not a movie to go into with faint heart. It requires the viewer to wrestle with some pretty basic questions and establish a perspective for our place in the universe and within the flow of time. There are times when I thought that there was a certain amount of sacrificing storytelling for artistry, but there’s no doubt that some of the cinematic images are as compelling as any you’re likely to see period.

It’s a movie that stays with you and gets under your skin. I suspect that it’s the kind of movie that will be remembered with more affection the farther away you get from actually seeing it. It has developed a reputation for being polarizing for audiences. At the packed screening I attended, the end credits were greeted with a deafening silence and then a smattering of applause. Critics have been effusive in their praise, and caustic in their criticism.

I characterized this as a movie you’re either going to love or hate, and to be honest I’m not sure which I feel for it at the moment. Since I haven’t decided, I’m going to split the difference and give it a rating in the middle which really isn’t accurate – this movie is anything but mediocre. However, the movie’s yin and yang are so at war within me that I can’t really decide whether to recommend it or not. I suppose it could be said you should probably go and see it and make up your own mind – and perhaps that is a recommendation of a sort. It might also be called high praise as well.

REASONS TO GO: Unusually ambitious and epic in scope. Pitt gives a bravura performance that may well be remembered at Oscar time.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, non-linear storytelling appears as snippets of memory rather than cogent scenes which can be annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the material may be too intense for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Burial is released next year, it will mark the first time in Malick’s nearly forty year directing career that he will have released films in consecutive years.

HOME OR THEATER: The scenes depicting the birth and death of the universe as well as the epoch of the dinosaurs should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Eden Lake