A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Love & Mercy” 9.2.15

The second film in two nights in a row that I decided to catch in the theater, was one that I knew little to next to nothing about other than that it was supposedly an autobiographical account of the life, work, and career of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Anybody who read my recent “The Gift” review, may have caught that the reason why I decided on seeing that film on the night that I did, was because another film was sold out. Well, that just happened to be this film. And not only was it sold out, there was a line around the block about 30 minutes or so before to see it when my friend and I arrived. Sometimes, as was the case with this one, certain films fall under my radar. And every so often, I’ll happen to be made aware of them simply because I see so many movies. And going along with that, I’m constantly aware of what other people are seeing. Now I don’t mean this in the commercial sense, as all I would have to do is look at weekend box office reports come Monday morning to see what the majority of people are seeing. What I mean is, especially when it comes to films that open in second run theaters such as this one did, I keep my eye out specifically for more indie-oriented films that stay running for multiple weeks. For the most part, what this means mainly is that they are doing exceptionally well with audiences. So, after being turned away from this film this past Saturday night, which admittedly very rarely happens, I made it a point to catch it at my first opportunity on an off night during the week.

The story itself is somewhat of a parallel one. In that it focuses on its main character, the legendary Beach Boys musician Brian Wilson, but depicts his life in two separate eras. The 1960’s era twenty-something Wilson (played by Paul Dano, who was just recently reminded of his talent as an actor having just seen “There Will Be Blood” (2007) ) and the middle-aged late fourty-something Wilson (played by John Cusack). The film opens in the latter of the two eras, with Cusack’s Wilson sitting in a Cadillac at a car dealership, where he meets his middle life love interest played by Elizabeth Banks. It becomes apparent straight from the get go that there’s something just slightly off about the older Wilson. But even so, Banks’ character takes a liking to him, mostly because of his celebrity (at first anyway). This is much to the chagrin of the older Wilson’s doctor/”caretaker” (played by Paul Giamatti). You see Giamatti’s got his hand and control in literally everything that the older Wilson does – to his inevitable purchase of the car, to the medications he takes, to where he goes and what he does, who he dates, even down to what he eats. As Cusack’s older Wilson is obviously haunted by some sort of mental illness that we’re unsure of. Then we flashback to the earlier days of Dano’s version of Wilson. A co-member of the one of the most successful bands in America at the time, the Beach Boys, and we get to see Wilson in his heyday – the multi-talented singer, songwriter, and composer, who it becomes clear is the brains and genius behind the group. We are given several glimpses into the creative processes in which Wilson penned some of the most better known, popular songs in the Beach Boys catalog. Though along with this process of his rise of becoming one of the most talented, better known musicians of his time, he is faced with adversity all around, most notably by his disapproving father – one of those “nothing is ever good enough” guys, his difficulties with the other members of the group, as well as the psychosis that seems to be developing as he gets more famous and more detached to what some may consider to be reality. The rest of the film then jumps both forward and back in time, with the two subplots involving the older Cusack’s Wilson’s love affair with Banks’ character, along with Dano’s Wilson’s mental dismantling as he tries to maintain his sanity and continue on with the group he made famous.

This wound up being a brilliant film that really dived into and gave you unprecedented access into the mind of one of the industry’s most talented artists in music history. Let me start with the performances – both Paul Dano and John Cusack are astounding in their respective roles as the early and middle-aged Wilson. And in my opinion, are so good and so convincing that they both deserve some awards attention come the end of the year. It’s Dano’s best performance since 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” and Cusack’s best role since 2000’s “High Fidelity”. Paul Giamatti is almost equally as good, although in a much smaller supporting role. He’s a detestable, lecherous character much like Wilson’s father, both whose main agendas seem to be to manipulate the “supposed” mental illness of Wilson (the film makes the argument that his illness was perpetuated by external circumstances) with the sole purpose of profiteering off of genius. Then come the technical components of the film – from the brilliant costume design and “look” from frequent Wes Anderson DP (director of photography) Robert Yeomen that captures the pastiche look of the 1960’s with the utmost authenticity. The script by Oren Moverman (the Oscar nominated “The Messenger” (2009)) is also top-notch and always seems to be trying to stay as true and genuine as possible to the real Wilson story. Then there’s the original music by Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross (“The Social Network” (2010)) which plays as somewhat of an “underscore”, though undoubtedly well done, for the best scenes of the film. In which we’re given a fly on the wall access to the in-the-moment live creative process that would ultimately produce some of the Beach Boys greatest hits (which should please fans of both film and music aficionado’s alike) and had me sitting back with a big smile on my face as I tapped my feet to these songs that are forever etched in our memories. The film’s pacing goes along at a breathtaking speed, as the story engages and totally immerses the viewer into the world of Wilson and his many trials and tribulations he faces along his own life’s way. It’s a great testament to one of the most talented, yet mentally damaged artists in music history, that left both me and the rest of the audience glued to our seats, as the ending credits rolled and we are given the linear notes into Wilson’s rebirth, now in late adulthood, following the success of his most successful work as a solo artist – 2004’s “Smile” complete with a live performance of “Love & Mercy” sung by the real Wilson himself. And not one person stood up until the song was over even though the credits continued to roll. This is among the better of the films I’ve seen this year, and while although it’s not perfect, it’s sure to be universally likable and is done with the utmost sincerity and respect for the artist in which it depicts. A top 10 contender and one that should easily place a spot on my Honorable Mentions list come the end of this year, catch this film if you can, as I can assure you you won’t be disappointed.

[B+]

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A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Ex Machina” 4.18.15

Ex Machina - Original UK Quad

I suppose it was just a matter of time before novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut. Having been in the business for fifteen years now Garland was first introduced to the film industry when his novel, “The Beach”, was adapted in 2000 by a little known guy named Danny Boyle. Boyle would hire Garland to write the screenplay for his next film, “28 Days Later” (2002), which basically was the screenplay and film that was solely responsible for every zombie movie or TV show to come after it. The two would collaborate again in 2007 in what’s still one of my favorite Science Fiction films of the aughts – “Sunshine” (2007), a mostly under-seen, overlooked, and under-appreciated effort except for many film critics and die-hard Sci Fi fans like myself. A mere three years later, and Garland would once again pen the screenplay for another innovative music video turned feature film director, Mark Romanek, in 2010’s brilliant “Never Let Me Go”. Garland has mostly remained relatively dormant for the past five years or so, except for writing the screenplay for the mostly forgettable “Dredd” remake (2012). When this film first caught my attention it was because it was Garland’s first foray into writing and directing. And well, given his track record up to this point in his career as a screenwriter, I quickly took note of it and put it on my list of upcoming movies to see. Especially because after having seen the trailer I thought to myself it could be something that had the potential to be a new and fresh entry into the Sci Fi genre. Which in my opinion, next to maybe horror, is the single most difficult genre to create something original because like horror, often times the genre has a tendency to rehash something that we’ve already seen. That and as anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am becoming more and more of an Oscar Isaac fan, who by the looks of it, seemed to play a pretty considerable role in the film.

The movie begins by introducing to a computer programmer, one of those brainy types who writes code named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson from last year’s “Frank”, also coincidentally Brendan Gleeson’s son, who starred in “28 Days Later”). He’s shown in front of a computer at work, and the director sets up a nice establishing segment where his co-workers are muted in the background, but through a series of text messages and them circling in around him clapping, we find out that he’s won something big. That something is a week long trip out to the very exclusive home (or compound if you want to call it that) of the once 13-year old scientific prodigy who’s now somewhere in his forties. A CEO named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in an experiment shrouded in secrecy. After a long helicopter trip over a beautiful lavish mountain range (“wow these mountains are beautiful” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who responds “yes Nathan has done very well for himself”) which tips off the audience to how wealthy and powerful of a man Nathan really is (a guy with the prominence of say a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) Caleb soon after is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and once at the compound, he meets the rather eccentric and reclusive Nathan, who explains to Caleb he will be involved in a series of tests with a specially designed AI (artificial intelligence) android specimen he’s created named “Ava” to conduct a “Turing test” (interestingly enough a film was made just last year about how the Turing tests came to be in “The Imitation Game” where Benedict Caumberbatch played Alan Turing, the man ultimately responsible for their creation). These tests measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable, from that of a human (a theme clearly inspired by the granddaddy of all Science Fiction films – Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) ). Through a series of “sessions” (as the title cards display on the screen) both Caleb and Ava form a friendship that at first seems solely for experimental purposes, but one that develops into something greater as the series of sessions progress. This is the central core of the story and as it develops, the plot takes a number of twists and turns particularly as Ava’s creator Nathan gets more and more involved in how he wants things, and tries to make every effort to ensure, that his “experiment” has the desired effect he seems to set out to achieve. With both Caleb and Ava have agendas of their own.

This was a deeply thought-provoking and heady Science Fiction film, chock full of existential ideas and themes that had my “thinking cap/light switch on” from its first frame to its final one. Garland proves here that he is just a strong a director as he is a writer. Filming the movie (with the exception of the very beginning, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s compound) from the inside looking out. He does an excellent job at reeling the audience in to a very specific type of environment. The compound is filmed exquisitely using an impeccable lighting design of mostly neon lit colors along with a sterile environment, an environment that looks like something only someone like Steven Soderbergh could pull off, with both the framing and film composition looking extravagant. Much should be said for the breathtakingly believable android Ava played by Alicia Vikander. If people thought Spike Jonze did an excellent job at recreating a robot’s “voice” to sound believable in 2013’s “Her”. This movie one ups it and shows an android who in the flesh, is the most realistic looking adroid we’ve seen since films like “Blade Runner” and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s take on AI in “Artificial Intelligence” (2001). Gleeson shines here as his relationship with Ava comes across acharmingly authentic and thoroughly engaging. A relationship that was so convincing one might only imagine their own selves taking the same course if they were put in Caleb’s shoes. Ava is so human-like mentally, physically, and emotionally that the film ponders the question of whether or not a machine can be made to be more real than that of a human (drawing similarities to the computer program HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) ). Oscar Isaac puts in yet another great performance as what I referred to after the film as the “mad scientist”. He shows many colors and shades of his character as the film progresses, and through the audience’s constant second guessing of his motivations and agendas is a big compliment to the way in which his character is written. The film also contains a deeply haunting and atmospheric score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury of the famed trip-hop group Portishead that blends itself in perfectly with the picture. This being their first foray into feature film composition. The music was just as impressive as anything Atticus Ross or Trent Reznor have done with the last three David Fincher films.

This wound up being a very rewarding entry into the Science Fiction genre which in my opinion, was the most well constructed and perfectly executed Sci Fi film since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). As the film takes on many different shapes and forms throughout combining elements of everything from heady Science Fiction, to full-blown thriller, teetering at times in borderline psychological horror. Which is accessible enough to please both indie/art house and commercial audiences alike. This marks a monumental directorial debut for Alex Garland, who I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next, which also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year that should and will be talked about for years to come.

[A-]

A Trip To The Movies – “Citizenfour” 11.22.14

I chose to take a trip out to the movies to see this for a number of different reasons. First, was that it was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. Which who anybody that knows me well enough knows that anything he gives his stamp of approval on is an automatic must see. Second, was the aggregate score ratings that I was seeing on websites like imdb.com and metacritic.com. What struck me about this film in particular was that usually when a film is weeks away from its release, its aggregate score is much higher only to then drop considerably a few days prior when it’s screened for all critics. In the case of this film I saw that scores were actually rising weeks after its release. Which is both unusual and incredibly rare, that I figured what I was witnessing here was a film that was slowly building an audience by mere word of mouth. At that point I decided to go ahead and make plans to see it. Lastly, I had noticed that Oscar winning composers Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails and British composer Atticus Ross, fresh off their string of David Fincher films (“The Social Network”, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, and this year’s “Gone Girl”), wrote the music for it. I thought that maybe I was on to something truly special here. But with something that was slightly shrouded in mystery since like I do with most films, including documentaries, I rely solely on who the director is for feature films and aggregate scores/ratings for documentaries. Not really knowing anything about it, even the topic or subject that which it chose to focus on, this was yet another film that I pretty much walked into with a blank slate hoping that I would be surprised.

The films opens with Glenn Greenwald, a British journalist for The Guardian, who’s comminicating with a man via the internet in a number of emails about potentially covering a story about one of the biggest news scandals of the 21st century which he hopes to expose. We then meet the second and single most integral person in covering the story, documentarian filmmaker Laura Poitras. After a series of instructions on where to find said source who hopes to expose the story both Poitras and Greenwald wind up in Hong Kong. It is there that we meet 29-year old Edward Snowden, a former NSA (National Security Agency) intelligence officer for the United States who has fled with numerous files of information showing the government’s role in breaking the law by setting up illegal wiretaps on almost every big telecommunication conglomerate in the United States. Which also happens to be one of the biggest human rights and civil liberties violations in the history of this country. Certainly that of the 21st century. Through a series of interviews in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room where he is hiding Poitras, Greenwald, and another journalist strategically plan out how they are going to leak this information to the rest of the world. As each day passes more and more information is collected, as is with each interview we listen to Snowden reveals more and more information about the shocking abuses of power of national security. While preparing himself for the inevitable witch hunt that is sure to follow once the information comes out.

This is an extraordinary documentary that resembles just as much of a non-fiction feature film that it does a conventional documentary. What I mean by that it seems to change the criteria of what we expect from the documentary format as a medium and includes elements that seem like they are straight out of a feature film. Unlike a conventional documentary, we are presented with evidence based facts coming straight from the subject himself, as it plays itself out in real time. Usually more conventional types of documentaries either talk about the subject post-humously with a serious of interviews from people who either know or knew about them thereby creating an agenda or a subjective opinion that sometimes is forced upon the viewer. This documentary is entirely different than almost any one that I’ve seen because we are shown the trajectory of the leaking of information exactly as it happened. That and we are given complete access to the whole proceeding, as the obviously very talented director Poitras is one of 2 sources; Greenwald being the other, who spend every hour of every day documenting the incredibly brilliant 29-year old Snowden. Something that is so rarely seen in documentaries. Particularly political ones that has this much riding on the line. This leak of information about illegal abuses of power by the NSA and other counterintelligence agencies is baffling. Because we are given unprecendented access to all of the information straight from the source we start to really understand how huge the whole thing really is. The interviews and access to information that Snowden provides us with is very well presented and pre-calculated. As the story unfolds and the information is leaked, the situation gets more and more desperate for Snowden, as almost every counterintelligemnce agency from America to Japan starts to target him as the main suspect, and pretty soon neither the director Poitras or the journalist Greenwald are allowed contact with him. As the entire counterintelligence world starts to slowly inch closer and closer to locating him. You yourself as an audience viewer experience the same (well, almost) level of fear and paranoia that everybody who’s involved with the whistleblower seems to be experiencing. Which is the film’s greatest strength, to put you right there in real time and acts as an almost emotional rollercoaster as the events before you take place. There were times that I was so engaged, with my mind’s light switch on tracing the story as it unfolded, that I literally had a physical response to it in that I felt my body temperature getting colder and just about every hair on my body raise up. Like something out of a psychological thriller or borderline horror movie. The last third of the film where the news starts to go viral and the tension surmounts to such a high level was probably the first time I had feelings similar to that since Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (2011). Another film that explores how fast something can spread (in the case of that film a disease) since we are all wired in technologically on a global scale. Regardless of how you felt about Snowden at the time this information was exposed, or are like me and were a Snowden “novice” before seeing the film. This is an essential piece of cinema that practically reinvents the documentary format, and bridges the gap between that of it and feature film. All the while presenting us with one of the most shocking revelations of the violations of civil liberties that’s taken place in post-9/11 America. This is a brilliant documentary that is one of the year’s best behind the Steve James Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” and is sure to please both feature film moviegoers and fans of documentaries alike. This is one that is sure to pick up a Best Documentary nomination at the 2015 Oscars. See it and I can assure you with no doubt in my mind that you won’t be left disappointed.

[A-]

Two Trips To The Movies – Review: ‘Gone Girl’ 10.3 and 10.5

There is something special about seeing a new film on opening night by one of the most celebrated directors of the past 20 years. There’s a certain feeling or excitement that goes along with it that is difficult to put into words. Take for example when Martin Scorcese released “The Departed” in 2006. I was living in Portland, Maine at the time and had been following the news on it through pre production, filming, and post production; and knew that it was filmed in/around the Boston area. Being in that Boston was 2 hours (only 2 hours) away, I knew right then and there that I would be making every effort to see it opening night in the city it was filmed in as I thought it would only add to the authenticity of the whole experience. Seeing a new Scorsese movie, one that was being hailed as a return to his “Goodfellas” and “Casino” roots, with a sold out crowd on opening night in the city it was filmed in? There really isn’t anything like it. At least for me anyway. Even if I did wind up ultimately being let down by it. It’s the waiting in line for over an hour with people who are equally as excited, to finally being let in by the usher who unhooks the rope, and then finding yourself a good seat. Only to sit back among the buzz of the audience and prepare yourself for something that you’ve waited so long to see. That exact feeling and experience is one that I’ve only felt and had maybe a half a dozen to a dozen times in my life. It’s like the rush of a drug, and one that I’m constantly trying to chase again. When I first heard about “Gone Girl” all I needed to know was that it was directed by David Fincher, and from that point forward I made a cognizant choice to close myself off from everything about it. I did however catch the initial trailer while seeing another film several months ago and remember thinking “huh, that trailer didn’t tell me anything. And I’m glad it didn’t. Because from that point forward I wanted to know absolutely nothing about it. Even going into the opening night showing I knew 4 things – that it was based on a New York Times Bestseller, that it starred Ben Affleck (who I had my doubts about) and involved a kidnapping (the only 2 things I could make out from the trailer). And, finally, that it was directed by David Fincher. Fincher is one of maybe 10 directors (Roman Polanski being another one that I mentioned in my last review) where I’ve seen just about every film he’s made. Going all the way back to his debut with the horrible 1992 “Alien 3” (I gave him a pass with that one – he was young and probably thought it would kick start his career ) to his groundbreaking “Se7en” (1995), to 1997’s smart and clever “The Game”, to 1999’s admirable but slightly overrated “Fight Club”, to 2002’s mostly forgetabble “Panic Room”, to what I still consider to be my favorite Fincher film – 2007’s “Zodiac”, to 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (a film where I’m in the minority but that I find comparable to “Forrest Gump”), to 2010’s remarkable “The Social Network”, and finally 2012’s solid and equally dark adaptation of the remake of the Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. David Fincher is one of those directors that my anticipation of seeing a new film of his is so great that I don’t even have to contemplate for a second whether or not I’ll be seeing it on opening night. That and I went to see it twice. Mostly because I owe it to Fincher in that I sometimes feel, like with other directors of his caliber, that his films often require a second viewing.

A loose synopsis of the film is that it revolves around Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who at first appears unhappy with his life and the way in which it’s heading. He owns a bar in which his sister whom he’s close with works at. He has a father in an assisted living home who he’s not so close with. Through a series of both flashbacks and flash-forwards we are shown how him and his wife Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) came to meet. Amy writes for a magazine in a column where she goes by “Amazing Amy”, and through a series of journal entries we are told the story of how they came to meet and fall both in and out of love. But then it flash-forwards to Nick coming home to find his wife missing and it appears as if a murder may have taken place. Did he commit it? The detectives assigned to the case certainly think he did. He’s completely solemn and well composed about the whole thing. This augmented by an interrogation where we learn that he really doesn’t know much about his wife other than that she “was really complicated”. Which might have to do with the fact that despite their having fallen madly in love with one another, they also show how their love unravels to where they wind up loathing and having nothing but the utmost disdain for one other. So much so to the point where she feels so threatened by her husband that she purchases a gun in order to protect herself. Flashing forward again all eyes are on Affleck’s character, as everyone from the police, local townspeople, to the eventual press and national media, wind up being convinced that it could have possibly only been him who did it.

The film winds up being a mixed bag. There were elements about it that I loved greatly and other elements I had some serious problems with. I really liked Fincher’s vision and take on the story (though admittedly I haven’t read the novel in which it’s based on). It’s unbelievably dark and psychological in all the best ways. He has a knack for creating a mood and tone that’s uncanny to almost any other film maker around. The way in which he shoots the film with blueish and cold color filters gives it an almost dream-like quality at times and a nightmarish one at others. That and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score really accentuates the material nicely. Similar to their work on “The Social Network” and like the electronic scores of recent years by Cliff Martinez. All three composers whose music is almost like a second character in the films they write for. I also liked the second guessing element to the whole proceeding. It’s a constant game of asking yourself questions and following the trail of bread crumbs that are effectively laid out for you. And Rosamund Pike gives a mighty fine performance here. One that I can potentially see her getting an Academy Award nomination for for Best Actress come Oscar time. Where its greatest weakness lies is in its inability to feel even remotely authentic. To me it felt incredibly sterile, transparent, stagey, and at times similar to that of a TNT movie of the week. All of the performances besides Pike’s felt awkwardly wooden. Even though I’m told it’s fitting that Affleck’s character comes across that way as it’s more faithful to the novel. But casting Tyler Perry as the lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as one of Amy’s ex’s, and Patrick Fugit as one of the detectives was a total misfire and all three of them seemed totally out of place. I thought none of these or any of the other performances stood out even in the slightest other than Pike’s. I also felt that the pacing felt a bit uneven and jarring at times. One scene would grab a hold of my attention and then the flashback or flash-forward following it would lose my interest. Lastly, there were quite a few plot holes throughout the story that the writer and director ask the viewer to take a pretty considerable leap of faith with. Still, it had a fair amount going for it. So for some of the more positive reasons I mentioned above I would definitely recommend seeing it. That and I can also see it being a really divisive film. But for people like me, it is and always will be looked at as a minor Fincher effort in his ever expanding body of work.

Grade: First time: strong B / Second time: C+ / Overall: B-