EIFF 2015: ‘Love & Mercy’ Review 0 114

eiff-2015-love-and-mercy-review

This unpredictable biopic chronicles the life and career of Brian Wilson, the troubled musical genius and beating heart of superlative ‘60s rock band The Beach Boys. It jumps between the heyday of the band – in which Wilson largely helped create their most popular and pioneering songs – and decades later when he’s under 24-hour watch of a shady therapist as a result of his psychosis.

Love & Mercy has all the ingredients of a generic, been-there-done-that musical biopic. Everything from the band creating the iconic music that we all know so well now to the inevitable discord between members. But it’s in the way that the film is structured and in the deliberately unwieldly, unpredictable way it’s directed by Bill Pohlad (his first since 1990’s Old Explorers) that makes it stand out from that most crowded of crowds.

It’s a film that plays to audiences who love music for the beautiful, sad, uplifting, haunting and over-whelming art form that it can be and plays out in a lyrical, poetic fashion that exudes an at once unnerving and crisp atmosphere throughout. The two eras between which the film is split down in the middle are effortlessly captured, from the clothes to the cars to even the way people talk, and paints a convincing portrait of how the former time period eventually became the latter through cultural shifts and attitudes.

The idea of having two very distinct actors like Dano and Cusack play Wilson at different points in his life seemed a bit of a risk, not least because the two look absolutely nothing alike, but they both absolutely nail the mannerism of the real-life man. Dano is fantastically upbeat and enthusiastic in the younger days, full of as much zest for life and music as he is ideas for how to create not just new songs but new techniques with which they can be arranged; it’s in this segment that the film gracefully explores that age-old idea of the genius not being appreciated or understood in his time as he hears fragments of notes swirling around his head and spends hours upon hours trying to realise them in the studio, much to the annoyance of almost everyone around him who just want to get on and do just more of the same.

Cusack has rarely been better as the older Brian and he has arguably the more difficult task of the two actors because he has to convey the weight of his mental illness that’s built up throughout the years without proper care (or, as the title suggests, love and mercy). As I said, there’s a disparity in looks between the two actors but they’re absolutely two halves of the one whole and are as convincing in the small details – end credits footage of the real Wilson shows just how spot-on the duo represent them in their respective performances – as they are in the big emotions.

Those two might share the spotlight for most of it but there’s also fantastic work from the supporting cast, including Elizabeth Banks as spirited Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, who becomes a rock onto which the older Brian can hold for support, much to the chagrin of his unscrupulous therapist Dr. Eugene Landy, played with brilliant false pleasantry and underlying calculating coldness by Paul Giamatti. Not to give too much away but Banks becomes somewhat of the crusading hero of the piece as she desperately tries to free her beloved Brian from the clutches of a man who’s clearly only after his money and despicably using his mental illness as a means to hold the power.

You’d think that the two distinct time periods, both in terms of the actor playing the central figure and the individual plot strands, would sit completely at odds with one another but it’s quite the contrary. It’s a testament to the director that the film flows together as well as it does and that it manages to spin something new out of the well-worn musical biopic formula, one that should appeal as much to fans as those who only may have heard the frankly unavoidable songs in passing throughout the years. The film builds a complex portrait of a legacy, full of layered emotion, tenderness and a genuine reverence for the music and musician that it chronicles.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 537

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 562

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

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