Review: Love & Mercy

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DIR: Bill Pohlad • WRI:Oren Moverman, Michael Lerner • PRO: Jim Lefkowitz, Oren Moverman, Bill Pohlad, Clarie Rudnick Polstein, Ann Ruark, John Wells • DOP: Robert D. Yeoman  • ED: Dino Jonsäter • MUS: Atticus Ross  • CAST: Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Dee Wallace

 

Bill Pohlad’s biography of Beach Boy Brian Wilson delivers an on-point, touching and insightful portrayal of his life both personally and professionally.

The fact that the film is set both in the sixties and the eighties is enlightening. Wilson’s struggles with his mental health erupt around the time of seminal album Pet Sounds in the sixties, and by the eighties he has reached the depths of his psychosis.

A young Wilson, played by Paul Dano, is a clearly fraught, yet brilliant musician. He is struggling to overcome many obstacles, including unwilling band members, and an extremely unsupportive father. His intrepid musical ability is before his time, and some believe it to be too risky. This frustrates Wilson, and frustration is a key theme throughout this film. He is frustrated by his illness, his father and his music – and both Cusack and Dano capture this frustration perfectly.

It is clear that Wilson’s genius is somewhat spurred on by the on-going voices and noises in his head. These voices and noises seem to inspire him, and are the inspiration for much of the Beach Boys unique sound. Several scenes in the studio give an extremely authentic feel to the film, and parts feel quite documentary-like. For music fans, it is an insight into how some of the best sounds of the sixties developed.

As Wilson ages, John Cusack takes over the role. From here, it is evident that the illness has now dominated much of his personality, and changed him completely. There is hardly any lucidity left.

For this reason, using another actor to play an older, sicker Wilson was an excellent move. Had Pohlad used just one actor, his descent into madness would not have been as remarkable. John Cusack plays the aging rocker with a finesse and believability that hone in on the extent of his demise since the swinging sixties.

Similar to the sixties there is a constant barrage of people surrounding Wilson. Be it his manipulative Doctor (Giamatti) or his entourage, it seems that no matter what decade, there are always people telling him what to do and making decisions for him.

There are also some extreme highs in the movie, and it is not all incredibly depressing. A beautiful relationship develops between Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) and elements of this are quite sweet. This, blended with scenes that are extremely difficult to watch like Wilson in the depths of a sedative state, and in the grips of mental breakdowns, combine perfectly to leave viewers with a definitive view of his turbulent life.

Love and Mercy depicts the irony that was The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson impeccably. The music they created in the sixties was uplifting and vibrant. It was for dancing and surfing (even though they couldn’t surf…). But behind that unique sound that defined a generation was a man struggling with paranoid schizophrenia and slipping deeper into a psychosis, made only worse by the lifestyle and drugs of the time.

Sixties Wilson uses his music to express himself, and to appease the voices in his head, but it is not without its cost to his personal life, which is revealed by Cusack.

Both Cusack and Dano play the part of Wilson in their own different ways. Both actors capture his child-like innocence, and combine it with the very dark side of his illness. These contrasts work well to depict the life and loves of an artist whose music has been enjoyed for over fifty years, and no doubt will continue to be enjoyed for many more generations to come.

The fantastic soundtrack, exceptional writing, and of course true story mean that Love & Mercy is not just for fans of The Beach Boys, but for fans of music in general, particularly those with a penchant for a troubled genius.

Katie Kelly

 

12A (See IFCO for details)
121 minutes
 
Love & Mercy is released 10th July 2015
 
Love & Mercy– Official Website

 

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Cinema Review: Prisoners

jake-gyllenhaal-and-hugh-jackman-star-in-prisoners-trailer-watch-now-136091-a-1369991505-470-75

DIR: Dennis Villeneuve  WRI: Aaron Guzikowski  PRO: Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner  DOP: Roger Deakins  ED: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach  CAST:  Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano

We are firmly in the same territory as Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone in this story about the disappearance of two little girls and the desperate measures taken by one of the fathers (Hugh Jackman) to discover their whereabouts. The early scenes possess a sombre style and mood which are eventually suffocated by the increasingly thrillerish convolutions the plot takes. The film stokes our general fears concerning the vulnerability of children, but it feels as if this shared anxiety is merely burned up expediently to lend urgency to a thriller. Ultimately, the children are doubly absent, both from the characters in the story and the story’s deepest concerns, and this detracts from our ability to invest deeply in the film.

As ever, Hugh Jackman is committed and convincing as the distraught father who unwisely applies his aggressive, survivalist outlook to finding his daughter, turning on the only suspect in the disappearance: a young man with a low IQ played by Paul Dano. There are good actors throughout the cast, but one could have lived without Jake Gyllenhall’s ostentatiously actorly decision to play the lead detective with a pronounced involuntary blink that only draws attention to the self-consciousness of his performance and takes us out of the story. The last act drags and the good will earned by the composed opening has been squandered by the time the film gets through with its drawn-out finale and the screen abruptly cuts to black. There has been talk (probably generating from the studio marketing department) that this is an Oscar contender, but it never distinguishes itself as anything more than an effective genre piece, graced by the usual high-standard of work by cinematographer Roger Deakins and with particular appeal to those who enjoyed the above-mentioned (and overpraised) Dennis Lehane adaptations.

Tony McKiver

15A (See IFCO for details)

153 mins
Prisoners is released on 4th October 2013

Prisoners – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Ruby Sparks

DIR: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris  WRI: Zoe Kazan PRO: Albert Berger , Ron Yerxa  DOP: Matthew Libatique  ED: Pamela Martin DES: Judy Becker  CAST:  Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas

Your enjoyment of Ruby Sparks will come down entirely to whether you are someone who can switch their brain off, or someone who tends to over-think complicated ideas. Certainly no one involved in this bright romantic fantasy had their brains turned on, as if they had they might have realised the morally rotten core at the heart of an apparently charming little movie. The subtext of this film is frightening, but what’s truly terrifying is that it seems like no one who worked on the film is aware of it in the slightest.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer suffering a creative block, who a decade earlier had his only hit while still a teenager, with one of those books that ‘speaks’ to people. Burdened with all of the emotional issues (a dead father, a remarried mother, a slowly becoming successful ex), Calvin can’t get started on his new book. He’s the kooky kind you find in movies – he uses a typewriter like an obnoxious hipster, lives off his one successful book and has a dog with gender identity problems. The dog is named Scotty, after F. Scott Fitzgerald; at one point in the film it shreds a copy of Catcher in the Rye. You get the idea.

Unable to meet a girl, Calvin’s psychiatrist recommends he try writing about his dream girl. He invents a girl with the sort of idiosyncrasies he finds attractive, imagines her being pretty but not overwhelmingly so, and then gives her the name of a bad drag queen act. Soon, thanks to his magic typewriter (probably?), Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) is made flesh. While Calvin assumes he has gone insane, Ruby believes they’ve been in a relationship for some time and acts as if she’s always existed, unaware she is his creation. Soon Calvin and Ruby are happy together – she’s the sort of girl who likes zombie movies and jumps into pools unexpectedly; who could resist? But it’s not long before her underwritten life (she has no job or friends) and Calvin’s jealousy and fear of abandonment kick in, and he’s back at his typewriter literally changing her.

On the surface, Kazan, who also wrote the film, has scripted a somewhat clever takedown of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’  phenomenon, highlighting the implausibility of male expectations in a similar manner to how Weird Science looked at the fantasy of the buxom bombshell back in the ’80s. But scratch away that surface and a far nastier film is revealed. After running out of ideas halfway through her script, Kazan has opted for a conclusion that is unsuitably creepy. And I don’t mean ‘threatening text message from your ex’ creepy, I mean ‘walking in on your mother in bed with a stranger and it turns out it’s you from the future’ creepy.

At first Calvin’s rewrites do little more than lobotomise Ruby, leaving her a quivering, weeping mess or a braindead giggling simpleton, but later things turn even more disturbing for the writer and his intolerable mind puppet. He becomes so possessive that his writing of Ruby begins to physically abuse her, before ultimately forcing her to perform (mild) sexual acts against her will. Worse still, the film rewards him for ‘learning’ from his spate of domestic abuse with a happy ending. It is tonally completely unsuitable, and it reeks of desperation in storytelling and/or the writer being too clueless to understand her own work. Kazan’s only writing project prior to this was her dire, drab play We Live Here, an under-edited vanity project also about rich people’s problems that ran off-Broadway last year, so perhaps it was premature to expect her to write a feature film that didn’t raise this many eyebrows. But the very fact that Kazan’s real-life boyfriend Dano plays her inventor/tormenter adds an additional layer of ick to the proceedings, upgrading Hurricane Ruby from unsettling shit-storm to grotesque rape fantasy.

Kazan, while not much the writer, proves herself once again a strong screen presence, and captures Ruby’s various mood shifts well enough. Dano on the other hand weasels his way through the despicable role as best he can, but it’s not enough to rescue the character – where’s Daniel Plainview with a bowling pin when you need him? Annette Bening grates as Calvin’s hippie mum, while Antonio Banderas almost charms as her eccentric artist husband. Elliott Gould and Steve Coogan pop up briefly in roles they could do in their sleep, while Chris Messina steals what little of the film he can as Calvin’s jock-with-a-heart brother Harry, who also gets the best of Kazan’s few good lines.

Returning to filmmaking for their first time since their 2006 Oscar-winning breakthrough Little Miss Sunshine, director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make their talents known here – Ruby Sparks is finely, brightly shot throughout and tidily cut with passable montages. People run excitedly to stirring music. It would all be quite lovely if it weren’t for that damn script.

And it all comes down to the script in the end. Telling us repeatedly that Calvin is a genius of a writer when all evidence points to the contrary (just as his faults are written into Ruby, Kazan’s are written into him), Kazan has unintentionally drawn a metaphor for her own script – just because she is famous does not make her a storyteller. Attempting to address similar issues to (500) Days of Summer, she has written a similarly faulted protagonist, but with none of the same charm (and indeed Paul Dano is no Joseph Gordon-Levitt). While those who can mentally gloss over its sordid subtext may enjoy a romcom with a twist, Ruby Sparks will remain a difficult film about an unlikeable, self-absorbed cur who gets to imagine his cake and eat it too.

David Neary

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
103 mins

Ruby Sparks is released on 12th October 2012

Ruby Sparks   –  Official Website

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Cinema Review: Looper

snooker looper

DIR/WRI: Rian Johnson  PRO: Ram Bergman, James D. Stern   DOP: Steve Yedlin  ED: Bob Ducsay Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels

We are long overdue a great time travel adventure. Sure, we’ve had dramas such as Midnight in Paris and mind-bending thrillers such as Primer, but there hasn’t been a proper edge-of-your-seat time travel movie since 12 Monkeys, nor a fun one since the Back to the Future trilogy.

Thank goodness for Looper. Clever without being baffling, fun without being silly, Rian Johnson’s film balances its own mythology with a pulp thriller story that feels simultaneously classical and entirely new. Johnson, the writer/director of cult high school noir Brick and the seen-by-few (and liked by fewer) The Brother’s Bloom, is a film fan’s filmmaker, a man who has imbibed the Hollywood genre greats, and who now pours those ideas through the blender of his brain and creates some fascinating, if hitherto not entirely successful chimaeras. Looper’s influences are evident and many, and surprisingly none of them are films about time travel.

Starting off 30 years from now in Kansas City, Looper is set in an America wracked with colossal rates of unemployment and homelessness, but where the well-to-do dress like guest stars on Mad Men. A comment on the trajectory of modern America, sure, but that’s where the social commentary ends. Another 30 years down the road, in 2072, time travel technology has been developed, but only for use by the wealthiest and most duplicitous of people. Rather than risk a Back to the Future-style paradox, the global mob of 2072 uses time travel for the sole purpose of disposing of corpses – easily tracked in the future, easily gotten rid of in the past.

In 2042, mob goons called loopers are assigned the task of gunning down newly materialised mob targets the moment they appear from 2072. It’s good work if you can get it, but it comes at a high price. Looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is happy with his lot; splashing his cash on cars, drugs and a prostitute with a heart of gold. But things get thrown for a loop for him (sorry) when his latest target is revealed to be himself, 30-years-older, and now looking like Bruce Willis. Willis knocks his young self out and goes on the run, set on a mission to alter the future, while Gordon-Levitt must track down his older, wilier self while evading his own bosses at looper HQ, who can instantly take out the elusive Willis by killing Gordon-Levitt, thereby erasing Willis from the timeline.

Ostensibly a chase movie through a neo noir future, Looper keeps its story energised by keeping the time travel repercussions as simple as possible. As long as Willis is still there, he knows Gordon-Levitt will grow up to be him. As Gordon-Levitt acquires fresh cuts and injuries, Willis develops brand new, decades-old scars.

Looper is as smart in its dialogue as it is in its ideas. Gordon-Levitt and Willis spar over their shared memories in the film’s most cleverly crafted scene. Looper boss Abe (a delightfully sneering Jeff Daniels) chastises his young employees for dressing in suits and ties, an out-dated fashion now brought back by the Mod-like gangsters – fashion has a cyclical nature, underscoring the film’s central theme. Language, too, has come full circle; the word ‘blunderbuss’ has been uprooted from the history books to refer to the loopers’ heavy-duty shotguns.

Johnson’s team have crafted a terrific thriller here, with crisp, bright imagery and coherent editing. The score hums and clicks with electronic, industrial sounds overlaying traditional instruments. Gordon-Levitt, belatedly (by a decade) the in-demand actor of the hour, is tough yet endearing in the lead role, and the fine makeup that makes him a believable antecedent to Bruce Willis (most notably wearing Willis’ curling nose) never distracts from his performance. Willis plays the weary, broken-hearted avenger he’s based the last decade of his career on with expected fluency. Only Johnson regular Noah Segan disappoints, in the underdeveloped role of token villain Kid Blue.

The film’s seemingly boundless energy comes to a crashing halt in the third act as Willis heads off on his mission and Gordon-Levitt hides out at the rural home of Emily Blunt’s suspicious Sara. The rhythm of the film goes all to hell for nearly 20 minutes, and the temptation to, like the characters in the movie, repeatedly glimpse at your watch is hard to resist. But this is all forgiven in a shocking, brilliantly conceived final quarter hour, that is as exciting as it is philosophical.

Aside from that late lull, the film’s most troubling aspect is its narration, lazily used to explain its mythology and technology, and it’s left unclear from where or when (or on what timeline) Gordon-Levitt is narrating. But Looper succeeds in making its world easily accessible, and more impressively manages to make its two anti-heroes – one a junkie out to kill his future self, the other so hell-bent on vengeance he will stop at nothing to do what he insists is right – likeable and worthy of our attention.

With echoes to films as eclectic as Witness and Akira and with a finale drawing on the magnificent climax of the supposedly inimitable Russian classic Come and See, Looper is a minor triumph of genre-bending entertainment.

David Neary

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
118mins

Looper is released on 28th September 2012

Looper –  Official website

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Where The Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are

DIR: Spike Jonze • WRI: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers • PRO: John B. Carls, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Vincent Landay, Maurice Sendak • DOP: Lance Acord • ED: James Haygood, Eric Zumbrunnen • DES: K.K. Barrett • CAST: Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Michael Berry Jr., Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose

This is quite a dark, brooding little tale, made all the more affective by its simplicity. A young boy, Max (Max Records), disobeys his mother (Catherine Keener) and seeks refuge in a land of monsters who adopt him as their king. The film is directed by Spike Jonze and has been adapted from Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s story. But whereas Sendak’s 1963 book, which was less than 350 words long, was a fable for children, Jonze’s film is more a melancholic reflection on childhood for adults.

In the world populated by Jim Henson’s overgrown, and wonderfully realized, mondo muppet monsters, Max learns valuable lessons about who he is and what he has. This is not a world populated by the usual collection of the cartoonish opposites of the good loveable creatures versus the bad evil pantomime ones. Here we have a mixed bunch of hulking hirsute creatures that you will neither cheer for nor boo. But you will listen to and be moved by them.

Not everyone will be enamoured with what happens in this other world. Most of what occurs on the island with its dense forests, rolling sand dunes, and swooping cliffs, is random and inconclusive. The creatures, mostly somber and somewhat neurotic are simply living their lives. In between nothing really happening, Max engages in some contemplable dialogue with the monsters (who all represents facets of himself) and gets the chance to play out his problems with aggression and fears of isolation.

Having said all that, Max is actually quite an irritating spoilt little blackguard at the best of times and there can be little sympathy for him as he rallies against his home life; after all it is quite a normal life and he has a cushy number there pushing the viewer to annoyance at what he has to rage against, and that really he should be disciplined by having his Wii taken off him and no cookies for a week. But he’s a kid – and kids don’t know if they have things easy or not, for their inexperienced egocentricity means that if something bad is happening to them, it’s the worst thing in the whole wide world. And yes, it is a simple message he learns. And let’s not even start on the ending (cringe factor 9).

Yet despite this, the world that exists over Max’s rainbow is a sumptuous one to behold and the film is beautifully shot (in Australia) masterfully capturing both scenes of vast open spaces and claustrophobic tight spaces. Jonze treats it all with a low-key approach and uses a natural palette to bring this world to life.

Jonze has made Sendak’s book his own fleshing out its cerebral musings and opening it up to rich reinterpretation. Where the Wild Things Are is not what you might expect; as is often the case with Jonze. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see such a film that doesn’t feel the need to play for laughs or pander to cutesiness. A kid’s film you don’t have to bring kids to.

Steven Galvin

Rated PG (see IFCO website for details)
Where the Wild Things Are
is released 11th Dec 2009

Where the Wild Things Are – Official Website

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There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood
There Will Be Blood

DIR/WRI: Paul Thomas Anderson • PRO: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar • DOP: Robert Elswit • ED: Dylan Tichenor • DES: Jack Fisk • CAST: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier

Something strange has been happening to US cinema as of late. At some point towards the end of last year, Hollywood remembered how to make great films. In the past few months we’ve been treated to some excellent work from all ends of the cinematic spectrum. Juno has shown that you don’t need big stars to make a successful comedy, while on a bigger budget, Cloverfield has offered the YouTube generation their own Star Wars experience. Meanwhile, The Assassination of Jesse James and the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men have legitimised the western for the 21st Century and given the Oscars their best selection in years. There Will Be Blood, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson (his first in five years) sits comfortably alongside the latter two, but may outshine both of them. Already hailed as the best film of last year by countless American critics, showered with awards, and a solid bet for at least one Oscar, the film arrives here with a considerable burden of expectation. That some critics have compared it to Citizen Kane should be indication enough of the film’s pedigree.

It’s not a bad comparison – a lengthy, complex and rich American epic set in the early 20th Century, There Will Be Blood is pure cinema, but at the same time genuinely unlike anything you will have ever seen before. An astonishing opening sequence sets the tone – essentially, it is an eleven-minute silent masterpiece unto itself, as we witness Anderson’s protagonist Daniel Plainview searching for silver. Entirely free of dialogue, the sequence is instead imbued with a sense of dread and power by Johnny Greenwood’s remarkable score. Following Plainview as he builds his oil business, at the cost of the life of one of his workers, it is nearly a quarter of an hour before he opens his mouth; but when he does, what a voice it is. As Plainview, Daniel Day- Lewis gives a towering performance that should go down as one of the finest in cinema history. Even by Day-Lewis’s impeccable standards, Plainview is an extraordinary creation; a man who claims to value family but uses his adopted son as a sales pitch. A man who hates everyone, yet demands their attention, be it in the form of love, respect or fear. A man whose desire for power extends beyond oil, beyond wealth and beyond reason, he is rarely anything less than pure evil, but he avoids caricature. The plot, and the outside world, run alongside Plainview, occasionally interfering with his plans but never stopping him from getting what he wants. Plainview is not merely the subject of the film, he is the film.

By 1911, Plainview has established himself as a wealthy, charismatic entrepreneur, and has moved into the oil business with his adopted son H.W. as his partner. After a tip from a local, Plainview arrives at a small town called Little Boston, and begins buying land in order to drill the oil that lies underneath it. There, he is met with little opposition except for Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Sunday, whose family own a crucial piece of land, is a teenage preacher who wants Plainview to pay part of the oil money towards his church. How the relationship between the two develops alongside the creation of 20th Century American capitalism is the driving force behind one of the most vital, bold and fascinating films of recent years. Alongside Day-Lewis, Paul Dano is not to be overlooked; in a terrific breakthrough performance, he infuses his scrawny teenage frame with fiery intensity whilst in his church, and acts as a cold, calm foil to Plainview’s bellowing outside of it. The two characters show the ugly side of two principles on which modern America was built; capitalism and religion, and the two’s uneasy relationship with another. For Sunday, commerce is a means for him to spread his message, while for Plainview, religion is simply another sales tool. It’s a compelling, darkly humorous competition.

Anderson, best known for his superb ensemble pieces Magnolia and Boogie Nights, is on new territory here. While there are occasional similarities with his earlier work – the sudden, shocking burst of violence recalls the climax of Boogie Nights for example – this is a far more mature and concentrated work. The self-conscious cleverness which accompanied Magnolia’s key moments is entirely absent here – there’s no raining frogs, no cast sing-along. Instead, There Will Be Blood offers filmmaking and storytelling in the purest, most electrifying form possible, and positions Anderson as one of the most fascinating directors working today. It’s a tough film, and one that values character over plot, but rewards attention and suggests that further viewings are required to understand all of its nuances and themes.

Nothing more clearly illustrates the film’s difficult, divisive qualities than its ending. Though it deals with familiar themes – the dark side of the American dream, a man driven mad by greed – there is nothing about the film that treads on traditional narrative ground. Just as the wordless opening sequence catches you off guard, so does Anderson’s earth-shattering climax, as Plainview mutates into a new kind of monster. It’s a truly surprising, memorable moment, complete with a catchphrase (‘I drink your milkshake!’) that has already earned the film infamy in the States. Rest assured, there’s truth in the title.

A truly staggering work, There Will Be Blood is a film loaded with fascinating contradictions. Visually, it’s stunning, Anderson painting grimy but beautiful landscapes. Greenwood’s score varies from dominating industrious noise one minute to graceful classicism the next. The performances, while there may not be many of them (Plainview is such an all-consuming figure that there are few speaking parts besides him and Sunday) are uniformly superb. And the screenplay feels like a vast epic, despite the film only really focusing on one man, who, at the heart of it all, has a character that is made up of some of the biggest contradictions of all. It’s a fascinating, challenging masterpiece, and essential viewing for anyone serious about the art of film.

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