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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Weekend Recap: 3 New-To-DVD Releases – “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” (TV Mini-Series), “Winter Sleep”, and “Results” (5/30-5/31)

I thought I would change things up here a bit on the website and switch up the format so I could review several movies all in one as opposed to writing a separate review for each and every single film I watch. For a cinephile like myself, I’ve found that the prior format, while enjoyable, was a bit daunting for both myself as a writer and for my followers as readers. Also, I found myself skipping over reviewing certain films that I’ve seen entirely, as to review them all would just be much too much work for the amount of time that my life allows. This way, I can write shortened reviews which will make it more realistic time-wise for both myself, and condense them as well which hopefully will make them a bit more accessible for people to read. As always with anything I do with the site, any feedback that people have whether good or bad is always much appreciated.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst Movie Poster

First off was the 6-part documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”, or otherwise known as simply “The Jinx”. This 6-part series debuted on HBO back in February, and since I’m about as out-of-touch with what’s on cable TV these days (I haven’t had cable in almost a decade) I just now got to this series that I had been hearing a lot about from many people whose consensus was that it was a must see. It’s directed by Andrew Jarecki, whose previous work was the 2003 Oscar nominated documentary “Capturing The Friedmans” as well as the mostly forgettable Ron Gosling and Kirsten Dunst box office flop “All Good Things” (2010). A movie that must have left so little of an impression on me that I didn’t even put two and two together that it was a fictionalized account of a based on a true story about New York City real estate mogul Robert Durst. Durst, unlike the film’s critics, was apparently so impressed by the film that he offered himself to be interviewed by its director Jarecki, hoping to clear his name after four decades and three accusations into murders that he claims he was innocent of (well, with the exception of one you could say, where it was proved that he did it but ultimately was acquitted of because it was found to be out of “self-defense” – one of the highlights but also one of the most disturbing parts about the story).

In a nutshell, this was one of the better documentaries I had seen in quite some time. The presentation of the material is spot on, and like last year’s Oscar-winning documentary about Edward Snowden “Citizenfour”, we are given unprecedented access to fly-on-the-wall interviews with Durst, juxtaposed with the presentation of all of the background material humanely possible, from the disappearance of both his first wife and the murder of his girlfriend, to the third victim, a neighbor, of whom I spoke of above. I thought the beauty of it lay in its presentation of the material, as each episode probes and plunges further and further into every single aspect and detail of all three cases, interwoven with candid interviews from almost everybody involved – friends of the missing and deceased, lawyers, private investigators, police, etc. But even more importantly, the intimate one-on-one interviews between documentarian Jarecki and Durst himself, who prior to this documentary, had never cooperated with the media never mind allow himself to be filmed over several interviews spanning over the course of a year. This is about as good as investigative journalism gets. And everything from the editing to the music, to the way in which the story unfolds, is top notch. Culminating with a jaw gaping conclusion which doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, but the way in which it comes about needs to be seen to be believed. This is A rate documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism, in a story that I embarassingly admit I knew little to next to nothing about prior to my watching it, but following it’s final episode, I was like cement stuck to my couch as I really didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing other than that I thought it was nothing short of exemplary. And currently stands at my #1 spot for Best Documentary that I’ve seen so far this year. [A-]

Next up was the Turkish film “Winter Sleep” by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”). A film that took home the Palme d’Or (Best Picture) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Admittedly I had been pushing this one off for quite some time mostly because of its running time, which clocks in at 3 hours and 17 minutes. But considering how much I loved both “Once Upon a Time” and the director’s 2006 “Climates”, it was just a matter of time before I sat down and fully invested myself in it. The story loosely revolves around a philathropist who owns a hotel in the Turkish mountains outside of Istanbul and lives with both his sister and much younger wife. As well as several of the other townspeople. A recently released man from prison, his brother, and their son, are the other major players that encompass the central story within the film.

Like the works of the Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev (“Leviathan”) and Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) the film explores very deep and profound themes involving interpersonal relationships between family, friends, and foes. While it involved many characters it mostly centers around its central character, the philanthropist and hotel owner Aydin, who sees himself as a man of strict morals and principles. Which are tested throughout the course of the film in what essentially becomes one conversation after another throughout it’s 3 hour plus run time. A lot of people, including myself, might be turned off by a film that’s practically entirely dialogue driven and very little happens in terms of action. That is if the dialogue wasn’t so damn interesting the character development so spot on and pitch perfect. As through each conversation the story reveals more and more about Aydin’s character, which I found utterly fascinating as the story progressed, I found myself more and more engaged to the point where I forgot about its running time. If you, like myself, are a fan of international cinema this is about as high up there on the ladder that it gets. Well deserving might I add of its coveted Palme d’Or win at Cannes 2014. [A-]

Last up was the indie rom-com “Results” which came out this past Friday on VOD, the same day as it was released in theaters. I had seen a trailer for it before a movie I had seen recently, and thought it looked surprisingly rather clever for a genre which I have a guilty pleasure for but am often let down by. It revolves around three central characters – Guy Pearce, the local owner of a gym (who never before has been funnier, here showing that he can do comedy just as well as he can do drama), Cobie Smulders (a breakout gorgeous talent, who reminds me of a Olivia Wilde or Rosemarie Dewitt) his late twentysomething personal trainer who he employs and consequently also has a fling on the side with, and Kevin Corrigan’s too rich for his own good bachelor, the aging fat schlub who reminded me of a character Paul Giamatti would have played back in his “American Splendor” (2003) and “Sideways” (2004) days. The three of them, by way of a series of hilarious events that transpire, wind up in a sort of menage a trois (not literally, but rather figuratively) with plenty of laughs galore. This was a smart, highly entertaining, somewhat satirical look into the lives of personal trainers, and one rich, seemingly naive man, who comes in and complicates the lives of those around him. Resulting in a comedy that’s cleverly written and much smarter than the average romcom. In fact, following on the footheels of last year’s films like “Obvious Child” and “Begin Again”, this was the best of its kind I’ve seen out of the genre since then. And is highly recommended if you’re looking for something lite or if you want to impress your significant other on a date night. It’s very funny, heartfelt, and touching enough, and so far, at least of the films I’ve seen so far this year out of the genre (which admittedly is very few) ranks among its best. [B/B+]

Review: “The Congress” 11.30.14

This is yet another example of a film that caught my attention solely because of the fact that I loved Israeli-born writer/director Ari Folman’s previous effort – 2008’s Golden Globe Winner for Best Foreign Language Film “Waltz With Bashir”. I recently revisited “Waltz” for maybe about the half dozenth time or so and found it to be every bit as mesmerizing as I had remembered it from the 5 or so previous viewings of it that I had seen. Maybe even more so. Part of the reason why I revisit movies is because I feel like I look at them differently with each passing year. That and it’s always a wise choice to revisit a director’s previous work which allows someone like myself to drum up anticipation for their next film. This film in particular highlights this ethos exactly. As WWB is a brilliant film from a multitude of cinematic stand points. It brought an entirely new and fresh approach to the documentary format in that it was shot similarly to what Richard Linklater did with both “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006). It presented us with a series of interviews that the director films beforehand then has a team of animators draw over the already filmed material which gives them an almost surreal and dream-like quality. The major difference being that Forman utilized this same look but without the fictionalization of the 2 Linklater films. His was a real life account of a series of different people talking about their experiences of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Which not only gave it a sense of authenticity in terms of how it breathed new life in telling a somewhat familiar war-torn story. It gave me a newfound admiration for how animation could be used to tell a highly effective tale with a deeply emotional center. However, since then, a very seemingly long 6 years have past. And now Folman is back with his next feature that finds him, like many other foreign filmmakers, coming to the United States following an award-winning film of theirs. This plus it boasted a rather impressive cast in Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston, and Kodi-Smit McPhee in a film that like WWB, brings back this combination of animation with live action footage.

The film opens with a close up shot of Robin Wright’s character, and a close zoom out with an off-screen voice-over by her film agent played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel is debasing her about her career and the many ups and downs it has taken, more recently for the worse. He says that he has come to bring her one last opportunity to do something that might kickstart her career. A move that could give her the same fame and notoriety she received for films that she was in when she was younger. Films like “A Princess Bride” (1987) and “Forrest Gump” (1996). It is quickly brought to our attention that she is playing a fictionalized version of her real life self. Though everyone around her including her son (Smit-McPhee), head of “Marimount” Studios (Huston), and son’s doctor (Giamatti), play characters and not themselves. Wright is being told that in order to save her career, she needs to be copied, or “computerized”, so that she can maintain both her youth and success. She is very apprehensive to this as she seems to be a “technophobe” as her daughter puts it. She’s afraid that by becoming cloned or made into a chip she might lose her sense of self and identity. However, because of her growing older and in need of a career change, she decides to take the offer. She then heads to some sort of scientific division within the studio, where she undergoes said transformation. Then, at this point, we jump 30 years ahead to the year 2033. Where she is about to cross the border from real life to computer life. And after having done so, she’s transported to this world where a number of different events transpire. Most of which revolve around the studio and the societal framework known as “The Congress”. The film takes a huge shift at that point and delves into entirety new territory, as it goes on to explore themes of identity, existentialism, the self, and post-technology. Giving us an inventive glimpse into the future.

I’ll start by saying I felt very indifferent about this picture. There really was so much to like, yet at the same time a lot that I had quite a bit of hard time finding myself being able to get into. First off, as I mentioned above it boasts a pretty incredible cast. Robin Wright is perfectly cast here as the aging star who’s own real life career trajectory is important in terms of the story’s context. She’s also in just about every frame of the film, so almost all of it rests on her really pulling her weight. And she rises to the occasion here providing some very strong work. Also, the animation, which a little more than a third of the film consists of, is simply breathtaking. As was with WWB, Folman and his obviously very talented animation team provide a visual spectacle with animation that makes anything I’ve seen up to this point look outdated. It’s hallucinogenic and acid-soaked imagery is nothing short of dazzling to watch. There’s also a pretty deep emotional core to the film, as the Wright character goes on a journey of self discovery that forces her to tap into some pretty introspective places. That stuff aside, the film feels almost tedious throughout its entire duration. The shift in tones were off-putting. The first third drags and then just when it starts to get interesting, they totally shift focus in the story and we’re presented with this entirely new universe and character arch. That and the animation segment, which takes up about the second third to three-quarters of the film, is a head scratcher and utterly difficult to keep up with and follow at times. It feels overwrought and much too dense for even the hardest of genre fans. Which in the case of this film would be heady Science Fiction. It attempts to explore some really deep existential themes that at times just seemed like a tad bit too much. So for all the incredibly stunning imagery on display here, the film gets caught up in the too many themes in which it tries to explore. And even despite its great cast and voice over work by people like Jon Hamm and Tom Cruise, this is mostly a tiresome effort for director Ari Folman and a disappointing follow-up to “Waltz With Bashir”.

[C]