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Love & Mercy (2014)
One of the absolute treasures of 2015
Let's start with some honesty, shall we? I came into this wanting it to be amazing. I think Brian Wilson is one of the few true American musical geniuses, a pop pioneer with an ageless sensibility. I wanted it to be amazing, but had my doubts. Dano and Cusack are odd casting to say the least and the biopic genre has all sorts of pitfalls baked right into its very formulas. Therefore, all the excitement leading into Love & Mercy was tempered by an equal if not greater dose of apprehension (this sort of confused cocktail will be even worse once The End of the Tour drops). Now, the film has been playing for well over a month and here I am just getting around to it.
Two hours later and any doubts or apprehension I had has been wiped away. Love & Mercy is the best possible screen version of Wilson's life story that I can imagine, even more than I had hoped for. But, more importantly, it's a remarkably well-made film-- lively, smart, and thoughtful. This is director Pohlad's first major film after making a career bankrolling films for the likes of Terrence Malick and Robert Altman. He distinguishes himself with his directorial work here, offering a series of perfectly judged scenes coalescing into an immensely satisfying portrait.
Nearly every gambit pays off. The hopscotch structure of Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner's delicately observed script energizes the film and lend it a harmonic musicality, complete with counterpoint and occasional dissonance.
John Cusack does his best work in a long time and Dano does his best work ever put to film. 1980s Wilson is both a quintessential Cusack hero-- a quirky romantic out of place in the world-- but with added layers, a softness and hesitance previously seldom used in his arsenal. What he lacks in immediate resemblance Cusack makes up for with physicality, creating a character by modulating his entire body. You can trace Wilson's arch by only paying attention to Cusack's eyes in each of his scenes. Back in the 1960s, Dano embodies Wilson's overflowing sonic imagination as well as his deep internal demons. I've felt Dano to be out of place in every other movie he's been in, but like Cusack he disappears here, falling into Brian's passionate drive. Together the two create a performance of absolute humanity.
Banks is given her meatiest role in a while and Giamatti returns to the screen with typical vigor. Both giving performances that provide complex and unexpected shading to characters whose outlines are familiar, but whose particulars ring true. The same goes for Bill Camp who gives Murray Wilson, the domineering father and erstwhile manager of The Beach Boys, rich psychological dimension with a bare minimum of screen time. His malignant presence lingers over the film just as it did over Brian's life.
Yet the sound is the real star here. Whether its the actual music of Wilson and the Beach Boys or the adapted and interweaved score-- AO Scott more accurately termed it a series of sonic collages-- by Atticus Ross, this film uses sound as well as anything this year.
The true achievement of Love & Mercy is the way it continually finds cinematic counterparts to the experience of listening to Wilson's best work. In that sense, it is as much a tribute to the act of listening to the artist's music as it is to the creation of that music. Indeed, this is one of the few films to ever make the act of hearing so vividly and gloriously cinematic, particularly when that act consists of a woman hearing a lonely, sad, frightened man's plaintive cries for help and responds with compassion.
Jurassic World (2015)
Little life finds its way into this lousy sequel
Remember the scene in the original Jurassic Park where the lawyer gets eaten while cowering on the toilet? Of course you do. It's a fun little moment. But it's also an easy joke and a sour, callous moment in a film that otherwise is pretty respectful of the life and death stakes at play in its scenario. Well, the makers of Jurassic World, mad little scientists of cinema that they are, take all the narrative DNA of the original film they can get their mitts on and pump in a whole lot of the toilet scene DNA to fill gaps in the chain and beef it up to modern standards. The resulting film is occasionally enjoyable on the lowest level of sensation, but mostly an onerous exercise in empty spectacle devoid of wit or humanity.
Despite the lip service this pays to Spielberg's comparably towering original, this new dino epic inverts nearly every element that made the first entry work so well and endure to this day. Chief among this is the original film's absolute love of science. Yes, the ultimate message is the danger of science overstepping its boundaries, but our main characters were two paleontologists and a mathematician. Here we must settle for Chris Pratt's ex-Navy man (I never thought a film could put me in the position of finding Chris Pratt unlikeable, but here we are) and a host of faceless paramilitary jug-heads. The strain of militarism runs deeply in the film (despite its pretensions otherwise) and combined with a general lack of humanity forcing me to the point of outright rooting for every human to be gobbled up whole and never heard from again.
Colin Trevorrow, likely in a misguided attempt to apologize for not being Spielberg, throws limp dick semi-satire all around the periphery to no real avail. It's telling that this film cues up John Williams iconic theme with shots of a theme park thoroughfare dotted with corporate logos. Hey, Starbucks. 'Sup, Brookstone. Hiya, Samsung. Hang loose, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. For all its hip po-mo posturing, this is an oppressively imagination-free affair, a sponsored dinosaur of a film, Comcast/NBC/Universal Pictures Presents Nostalgia Tinged Blockbuster 2015.
In his 1993 review of Jurassic Park, Ebert lamented that film's lack of awe and wonder. Perhaps he was right, but there was genuine terror and at least a cursory streak of humanity. The only such sensations dredged up by Jurassic World are a blood-thirsty cackle here and there. The problem isn't that the film appeals to our most base instincts, it's that it fails to satisfy them fully.
Gone Girl (2014)
A twisting and twisted popular entertainment
Full disclosure: I've read the book and think this is more than a cracking adaptation-- It's a near total improvement across the board. That said, I became so caught up with the shape of the adaptation that a second viewing will better clarify the meanings at work.
What GONE GIRL is about more than mystery, misogyny, money, or any other m-word: If you think you have "truth" on your side, you're clueless. I spent so much of it grinning from ear to ear. The humor is as pitch black as you've heard, with one punchline near the end that's way too easy (you'll know it when you hear it). But still, Fincher's in fine form; he and editor Kirk Baxter massage the 2.5 hour runtime into a steadily compelling thriller. Affleck and Pike are both excellent, each walking the emotional razor's edge that Fincher and writer Flynn have established for them. The script is a marvelous adaptation in the sense that it keeps so much of Flynn's original text and improving on it in more than a few cases. Still, if there's a reason GONE GIRL can occasionally strike its points a little too explicitly it can be linked to the script. These instances are few and far between, however. The lasting impression of GONE GIRL is that it's a twisting and twisted popular entertainment likely to see few equals on American cineplex screens this year.
The Immigrant (2013)
A beautiful film that feels palpably conjured out of the past.
I was spellbound from the first, though I'll freely admit some of it sprung from the sheer gobsmacking beauty of the period recreation and the tactile, grainy quality of the images. Yet these surface pleasures gave way to the captivating narrative, which is unapologetically melodramatic. Gray has faith in his story, though, avoiding ironic detachment and other arty pretenses at most every turn. He emulates the classical style (this is a movie that makes beautiful, expressive use of simple fades in and out) but he also seems to genuinely believe in its power, never succumbing to the temptation to wink or nudge at the ribs of the audience. He's admitted to consciously modeling the film on the women's pictures of Hollywood's Golden Age and the unabashedly female perspective really makes this a special film. Given the recent climate of re-surging sense of feminism and its role in popular art-forms. It vividly conjures an environment of palpable peril for Cotillard's Ewa; the threat of violation-- sexual, spiritual, moral-- lurks in every development. However, the movie is not content to portray Ewa as a mere victim in waiting. She is the film's luminous center, a locus of strength and conviction. As Ewa, Marion Cotillard is fierce and nuanced. Gray suffuses the film with close-ups of Cotillard and she holds them beautifully, not just in the sense that she conjures memories of the classic beauties of days long gone by, but in the force and undying intellect of her gaze. As her benefactor and eventual pimp, Phoenix's Bruno is a man who must be both lecherous and somehow sympathetic, sometimes all at once. Phoenix pulls it off, adding another complexly shaded character to his gallery of sexually frustrated raging bulls. A film of great aesthetic and narrative confidence.
Renews your faith in the movies.
Roger Ebert once wrote that he walked out of ALMOST FAMOUS wanting to hug himself. I emerged from a screening of BOYHOOD wanting to embrace everyone I know or have known. I also wanted to hug the makers of the film for creating an experience so rich and textured as to renew one's faith in cinema.
I believe that all art is, in some sense, autobiographical. Not in the sense that it reproduces or even re-contextualizes moments or facets in the life of the artists, but rather that the art (art worth discussing, at least) expresses something about the artist's sensibility and ethos. In that sense, BOYHOOD is a pure expression of the heart, mind, and soul of Richard Linklater. His reputation casts him as the most philosophically and romantically loquacious of a certain generation of indie auteurs; BOYHOOD reveals him to be the best American cinematic humanist currently going. This is his benediction.
The audacity on display here is both self-evident and not. Aside from the logistical headaches and sheer risks of the design of the film, the decision to root it so firmly in its own time and place could threaten the power of the universal moments. And yet, both exist harmoniously. Mason, Samantha, Olivia, and Mason Sr. are at once our on-screen avatars making it day to day through life and thoroughly interesting, developed characters worth investing in. Coltrane is a real find and hardly a moment of his work here feels remotely coached or false. Frequent Linklater collaborator Hawke has tended to seem slightly over-matched in past Linklater films (particularly BEFORE SUNRISE) but here he sketches Mason Sr.'s gains and loses vividly. Arquette too easily slides into the role as a thoughtful, well-educated woman trying to honor her evolving vision of herself and how to best raise her children.
The pace really sings on a second viewing, as the film relaxes into its own grooves and rhythms. The narrative strategies evolve in tandem with Mason's own understanding of his world. Perhaps it isn't the masterpiece that many are proclaiming it to be. It has some rough edges that are unavoidable with an unabashedly curious Linklater at the helm. Instead, it's something much better. This review (such as it is) began with a personal admission and that is what this film inspires. It reaches deep within us, maybe even deeper than critical inquiry, and dredges up some vivid emotional sensations. It's a beguiling treasure of a movie.
August: Osage County (2013)
Cast and script overcome studio softening
August: Osage County (Wells, 2013, B)
An absolute clinic in terms of a studio not understanding the property from which they've decided to make a movie. The tacked on final moments and the downright bizarre closing credits aren't enough to poison the rest, though. But, I feel like those unfamiliar with the source material will be left with a fundamental confusion about what they just saw.
The rest, however, is good, compelling drama. It's an outstanding play that's visualized without any particular imagination or energy. The geography if the house is clearly laid out, but never really develops into a tonal force of the film. The heavy lifting here is done by the cast and the wonderful script. Letts is wise to retain most of the play's best lines and the dinner scene centerpiece is an absolute marvel of ensemble acting. Streep has come under fire for her supposed scenery-chewing in the role of Violet. Those criticisms, however, seem to misunderstand the role itself, or at least the purpose of the role as it pertains to the lives of the other characters. She is a wild, vitriolic, malignant force to be reckoned with. Streep plays it with aplomb and a notable current of humanity. Roberts is impressive as well, often incorporating subtle echoes of Streep's performance into her own. Nicholson does very well in one of the more subtly difficult roles. Martindale and Cooper are also both outstanding, but these roles are both firmly within their comfort zones and by now their excellence is a forgone conclusion.
Much of the film retains the affecting nature of the play. Yet, too much of it is hindered by intrusion or softening for it to be the play's equal.
American Hustle (2013)
Slapdash, but fiercely entertaining
American Hustle (O. Russell, 2013, B)
Here's an endlessly likable, shaggy, fizzy cartoon of a picture. The acting is so good here that it makes up for the lumpiness of the screenplay. It's lifeless for the first 20 minutes or so, working at an energy level that doesn't really grab the audience. Then, once thing starts cooking, it zigs and zags into various moments of suspense and lunacy to varying degrees of success. I'm convinced this is the best Cooper has ever been; his scenes with Louis CK are all direct hits. Lawrence is purposefully obnoxious (although the inter-cutting of her crooning "Live and Let Die" with Bale's situation feels forced and falls flat). Bale is strong as usual. The most revealing aspect of his performance is that he still has a sense of humor, thank God. Perhaps the finest here, though, is Adams who takes a manic character and steers it toward the believable. As an expression of her range and ability, it's a total star turn.
I dunno if I can say this is a very good film, though. There's something in the script's messiness that's at once too apparent in the film, but also crucially missing in the aesthetic. It's slapdash, but not in any meaningful way. Still it's fiercely entertaining and the first O. Russell film I've really enjoyed since THREE KINGS. That's worth something.
Don't Look Now (1973)
Unforgettable Ghost Story
Don't Look Now (Roeg, 1974, A)
What is this movie about? One viewing and I'm not sure I can say but I'll do my best.
It's about grief. It's about coping. It's about the loss of a child. It's about a marriage. It's about belief. It's about confusion. It's about Venice. It's about fog whispering just slightly above cobblestone streets. It's about ghosts. It's about language. It's about dark corners and blind alleys. It's about canals. It's about paranoia. It's about the ripples between past, present, and future. It's about unease. And boy, oh boy, is it about the color red.
That may not have clarified much, but that's for the best. What's important: see this rare movie. Few horror films can match its unique craft and intelligence. Go in without expectation and see what it's about for yourself.
Room 237 (2012)
One of the great movies about why we love the movies
Room 237 (Ascher, 2013, A)
Take a moment to separate some things in your mind-- namely the film and its intentions from the interviews included. Even the most convincing theories presented aren't air-tight, but the film is more procedural then the negative reviews give it credit for. It is a celebration of taking part in the game of interpretation: approaching a work of art and making meaning, your own meaning. It's also consistently fascinating to watch and terrifically unsettling. Yet the entire production (assembled mostly as a collage of footage from other films) evinces such a love of the form. It approaches the hypnotic pull of film as a form and honors it. It's revealing, it's fascinating, and it's provoking.
The Way Way Back (2013)
Slight, but highly entertaining
The Way, Way Back (Faxon & Rash, 2013, B+)
Every beat of the story is familiar and its resolution is facile, but there's that nagging sensation in my gut. I enjoyed this film, the experience of watching it, the joy of the performers and performances (Janney is clearly having a blast), the occasional flourish in filmmaking, and the more than occasional burst of wit from the script. And that sense of sheer enjoyment places this ahead of most of what American movies circa summer 2013 have offered so far. When it comes right down to it, this is a well executed coming-of-age picture with no pretensions toward anything greater. Even the saggier moments are buoyed by this-it must be said again-stellar cast. And any film that gives Sam Rockwell a plum role like this deserves a look.