Love & Mercy – individual performances sparkle in the story of a tortured musical genius

Although I love the music of the 60s, I never latched on the Beach Boys during my formative late-teen years. Perhaps the group peaked way too early in the 60s to fall into my musical catchment zone. Perhaps they weren’t as big in the UK, from where most my musical influences come. The first time I heard one of their songs was a cover version of California Girls sung by David Lee Roth in the mid-1980s; I didn’t even know it was a cover. In 1990, I heard a song on the radio called Hold On by a new girl group called Wilson Phillips; the DJ mentioned that two of the singers were the daughters of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The band was a one-hit wonder and the Beach Boys again faded from my mind. In 2005, I started hearing rave reviews about a Brian Wilson comeback album – an unfinished project now completed; I listened to a couple of songs from the album SMiLE in 2007 and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Today however, I watched a movie that made me want to go back and discover all his music.

Love & Mercy tells the story of a musical genius who after many years in social and musical wilderness rediscovers himself and his music, with a help from a new love. The story jumps between two segments of his life – the 60s when he began his descent into madness and the late 80’s when he started climbing out of his personal hellhole. As with all these biopics, I am sure there are differences between what happened in real life and what is portrayed on screen.

Nevertheless, the movie is worth watching for the remarkable individual performances of Paul Dano/ John Cusack (as the younger and older Brian Wilson respectively) and Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the car saleswoman he met in the late 80s and is credited with helping him back to recovery.

Comedic actors frequently turn in powerful dramatic performances – Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, Whoopie Goldberg in The Color Purple, Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy, Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting and Jim Carrey in The Truman Show are the well-known cases. Of course, John Cusack would not be ranked in the same league of comic genius as the above names, nor has he restricted himself exclusively to comic roles in his career. Even so, I was surprised and very much affected by his believable and understated performance. Equally impactful was the chemistry between him and Elizabeth Banks, who after The Hunger Games and Pitch Perfect movies is fast emerging as an actor and filmmaker to be reckoned with.

While the 1960s scenes offer fascinating glimpses into the recording process and studio dynamics involved in the production of the iconic Pet Sounds album, it is the 1980s scenes between Cusack and Banks which provide the real emotional heart of the movie. The prolific and ever-reliable Paul Giamatti turns in an almost frightening performance as Dr. Eugene Landy, the psychiatrist who exerted such an all-encompassing control over Brian Wilson for about 15 years.

While most of the soundtrack naturally consists of Beach Boys music, British composer Atticus Ross does a good job of filling out the gaps with music which is organically built out of snatches of Beach Boys compositions.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman is the man who works on all Wes Anderson’s films and was Oscar-nominated for. For the 1960s portions in Love and Mercy, he used a traditional 16mm camera which gives you the feeling that you are really watching clips from that time.

While Straight Outta Compton has broken records this summer as the highest grossing musical biopic of all time, it is worth checking this under-rated and little seen gem for a different view of how art trumps over adversity.


The 2015 summer movie score-card: And the winner is…

Well, the summer officially finished a few weeks ago and the big winner has been Universal Studios, with Jurassic World, Furious 7, Minions, Pitch Perfect 2 and Straight Outta Compton. Disney as always was a strong performer with animation and Marvel properties Inside Out, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. And ranked 3rd was Warner Bros. with San Andreas and Mad Max: Fury Road.

After kicking off my summer viewing with the Avengers sequel, I had listed 10 other films that I wanted to watch over the remaining 4 months. Technically, I didn’t complete my mission, because found Tomorrowland to be unwatchable after about 20 minutes. I mentally swapped that movie for Inside Out in my list, but will only be watching that this weekend.

Nevertheless, here are those 11 films ranked on my intuitive sense of which movie I would be willing to go back to theatre to watch, or would stay tuned to watch if it was running on TV. I’ve put the Metacritic scores next to each film, as a point of comparison and linked to my individual posts on each movie.

#1 Mad Max: Fury Road (89) – My #1 movie of the summer, this was always guaranteed to be a dazzling visual treat, but what surprised critics and viewers like me was the depth of the characterization. I really hope there will be another film in the series, and that Charlize Theron is in it. Tom Hardy was almost incidental as Max!

#2 Jurassic World (59) – Yes, the third act became too generic, but the first two-thirds of the film including the set-up, the new characters and the new dinos all made it worthwhile. Newbie director Colin Trevorrow was rewarded with a Star Wars directing gig for 2019, but before that it’s very likely he will be involved in the next Jurassic movie, scheduled for June 2018.

#3 Ant-Man (64) – This was the doubtful Marvel entry that ended up being unexpectedly enjoyable. Everything just clicked somehow. Worth watching again just for Michael Pena and his ‘tip montages’.

#4 Avengers: Age of Ultron (66) – This is one of those movies that is really enjoyable when you watch it, but sort of fades from memory towards the end of the season as it gets crowded out by more innovative or enjoyable fare. Once again, the first two-thirds had some real emotional heft, but it descended into action CGI overload in the last half hour.

#5 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (75) – Not quite as enjoyable as the previous entry Ghost Protocol, but still strong enough to set up a possible 6th film in a couple of years.

#6 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (55) – This smart and extremely stylish thriller sadly never found its market, although it’s possible that it may thrive on TV and Home Video. Even so, hopes of starting a franchise are surely dead. Elizabeth Debicki plays one of the most deliciously evil on-screen villains I’ve seen in years.

#7 Furious 7 (67) – Having kicked off the early summer and riding on the Paul Walker sympathy wave to a record high box office for the franchise, it now seems rather generic with the benefit of a few months of hindsight. The producers have still not locked down a director for Furious 8 although they have announced a release date in April 2017.

#8 Entourage (38) – I thought the Metacritic score was a bit harsh. What were critics expecting from the big-screen version of a ‘guilty pleasure’ show like this? Impossible to watch on big screen with all the nudity and language, but I thoroughly enjoyed spending a 100 minutes with Vince and the boys.

#9 Fantastic Four (27) – Another film at the receiving end of an unfair Metacritic score, this is the movie that critics loved to hate; after all its own director hated it as well!

#10 Terminator: Genisys (38) – This film was a big disappointment vis-à-vis the promise of the first trailers and the strong cast of Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke and the returning Arnold. But eventually it just turned out to be a product of lazy scriptwriting that just took events from the first 2 films and shuffled the characters and the situations around in the name of time travel paradox. What a wasted opportunity.

#11 Tomorrowland (60) – Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all, because this was from one of my favorite directors who has not put a foot wrong in his career; Brad Bird, the man who made The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. I started watching this on a flight and had to switch off after 20 minutes because every character on screen was so irritating and the story seemed muddled and pointless. Is this what happens when a filmmaker becomes so successful that a studio will allow him to make whatever he wants? Feels like the misstep that M. Night Shyamalan made with The Village and Lady in the Water passion projects. I sure hope Brad Bird comes out of this one.

I imagine Inside Out will rank in the Top 5 after I see it on Sunday. Other fun movies during the April-August period included San Andreas, Ex Machina, Minions, The Age of Adaline and Woman in Gold.

Now, on to more serious fare in the next few weeks; Everest was absolutely worth the IMAX ticket prices. Next in line will be Sicario, Black Mass and The Martian.

Fantastic Four – good potential ruined by in-fighting and bad press

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Fox’s much maligned Fantastic Four reboot turned out to be better than expected when I watched it earlier this week. It had received horrible reviews (Metacritic score of only 27) and has made less at the US box office in 42 days of release than the first Fantastic Four made in its opening weekend in 2005! Even worse, its release was preceded by rumors of in-fighting between young director Josh Trank and Fox studio execs, culminating in Trank dissing his own movie on social media just before the release.

It is believed that Trank turned in a dark, character-driven film, while the studio was looking for a special effects summer blockbuster, which would kick-start a new franchise. Why this was not sorted out at the script and design stage is anyone’s guess. The studio then stepped in and reshot the 3rd act to introduce some action spectacle into the film. The last time a studio reshot a 3rd act, it was for World War Z; Paramount replaced a conventional action climax with a tense, creepy, claustrophobic ‘heist-type’ sequence – it transformed the film and they had a blockbuster on their hands. Pity Fox went the other way.

I had already decided to hate the film because of the casting. I couldn’t accept that the forty-something scientist Dr. Reed Richards was being played by 28-year-old baby-faced Miles Teller who had been playing teenagers and young adults for the past two years. I couldn’t understand why the brother-sister duo of Johnny and Sue Storm were now not biologically related, with Johnny Storm being played by African-American actor Michael B. Jordan. Both Teller and Jordan are immensely talented actors, but why bring a beloved decades-old established property to the big screen and then change everything that is familiar and beloved about it?

When I started watching the film, the opening act only served to confirm my misgivings. It is very difficult to believe that a kid (young Reed Richards), no matter how brilliant, can build a prototype teleporter in his garage, with materials scrounged from a junk yard. This opening act was cute in a Steven Spielberg coming-of-age movie type of way, but just didn’t feel technologically plausible. And real-world plausibility has always been the bedrock of the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In any case, at the end of the first act, a teenage Richards is ‘discovered’ at a high school science fair by Professor Franklin Storm and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and invited to join the secretive government-funded Baxter Foundation for young scientific prodigies. Professor Storm is supervising is a teleportation project and he realizes that Richards has figured out the missing link in the technology to make it work. Prof. Storm convinces the brilliant but brooding originator of the project, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel), to rejoin the team now that they are on the path to success.

We now enter the 2nd act of the film and this is where I feel everything clicks into place, playing out like a realistic science fiction thriller. The first unmanned test of the teleporter is successful as it beams back images from a world in another dimension, named ‘Planet Zero’. The young team’s celebrations turn to disappointment when they hear that the government will run the manned mission with trained NASA astronauts (and rightly so!).

In short order, the youngsters have defied orders and have launched themselves on an unauthorized teleportation trip to Planet Zero, which needless to say ends with unexpected consequences. In the entire 106 minute runtime of the movie, these are the moments that filled me with real dread and terror. For these people to return to consciousness and find themselves strapped down in a dark room, to discover what has happened to their bodies, the sense of confusion, fear and helplessness – all of it comes through the sounds and images on the screen. None more so than poor Ben Grimm; dragged along at the last minute by his childhood friend Reed Richards on this wild ride, he wakes up unable to understand what has happened to him. His pitiful and unending cries for help wake up Richards in the next room and he sees his own elongated limbs strapped down under restraints; he realizes he can stretch his way out his bonds and then drags himself through the air-conditioner grating to the source of Ben’s cries; all of this experienced by the viewer in real-time. The dark corridors and containment facilities really add to the sense of Poe-esque horror.

Now, we enter the 3rd act and this is where it kind of falls apart. The youngsters are at the mercy of the government, who want to use them as military assets, while offering them the carrot of continued funding and research to reverse their ‘maladies’. Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm agree willingly and Sue Storm less so; Reed escapes and is in hiding. But because no superhero film is complete without a showdown of heroes vs. arch villain, the script conspires to create a battle between a transformed and deranged Victor von Doom and the Fantastic Four on Planet Zero. Von Doom has created something similar to the World Engine from Man of Steel, which threatens to destroy Earth. The Four have to stop him. Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered with the generic CGI action in the last 15 minutes and quickly fast-forwarded my VLC player.

At the end, I was left wondering what the movie would have looked like had Josh Trank had been allowed to bring his vision to the screen, unaltered. I have read stories of his strange behavior on-set and no doubt that a more socially skilled director might have convinced the powers-that-be to believe in him. After the campy versions produced by Fox in 2005, I couldn’t have imagined that someone could tell the same story so differently. But at the end of the day, the movie had a split personality and it seemed to come from two different directors. The airbrushed posters were another travesty and completely out of sync with the tone of the movie.

I imagine that the chances of a sequel are virtually nil and I am not sure where the studio will go from here, because in order to retain the rights to the characters, they have to make another movie by 2017, I think. That is unlikely. I don’t think another reboot will work, as paying audiences may not have the patience to watch a third origin story for the quartet. The other option is to go the Sony/ Spider-Man route and collaborate with Marvel to co-produce the next movie and build in a cross-over appearance with other Marvel movies; that would require Fox to swallow some humble pie, which doesn’t go down very well in Hollywood, as we know.

Safe to say that Trank will be persona-non-grata in Hollywood for a while; he has already lost his directing gig on a future Star Wars movie with Disney (the owner of Marvel). All one is left thinking at the end of the movie is of what might have been.