July 2, 2015
If you live in or near Miami, do not miss your chance to see Flowers (Loreak — the film’s official site is only in Spanish or Euskara) on the big screen. It premiered here at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival, and I missed it (A hit and miss affair at boldest Miami International Film Fest yet — a MIFF 32 recap). It comes from the Basque country of Spain and is in the region’s language of Euskera. It has no distributor, so it’s not possible to point any other parts of the U.S. that might host it, but I hope my review will convince some followers of the Independent Ethos to seek it out. Maybe you will want to recommend it to your city’s film festival or your local, adventurous art house exhibitor.
The film explores love beyond what many are accustomed to from more mainstream films. Usually, the easy way to do it is to treat love with romantic sentiment and dwell on the lusty side of things if not what some would call infatuation or puppy love. But for those that have experienced the dynamic, more profound range of loves (in other words, real life), it is a much more complex thing. I’ve written about several films that capture those difficulties. Sometimes there are documentaries that do it well (Film Review: ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ looks beyond art for the heart of a long-term relationship) but more often these kinds of films come from overseas (Film Review: ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ and the pain of loving).
It’s difficult concept to capture on film as well as to digest as an audience member, but writer/directors Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga, working on their second collaboration, find a way to capture it and make it easy to engage with, on top of that. Their film recalls a less wordy version of the Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski. It’s that good.
Because this a special Miami-only run, Miami New Times hired me to write the review. You can read what I have to say about the film after jumping through the alternative weekly’s logo below. I wrote a rather passionate piece right after watching this film one morning. I was blown away:
On a side note, since we are on the subject of programming at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, today is the last day to catch Güeros (Güeros: A coming of age in an ode to Mexico City — a film review) and Saturday begins the 35mm retrospective for Abdellatif Kechiche, whose film, Blue is the Warmest Color, I reference above. I have an overview of his oeuvre in the Miami New Times. Details here.
Loreak runs 99 minutes, is in Euskera with English subtitles and is not rated (it has some cursing and a couple of disturbing images involving death). It has its U.S. premiere theatrical run at the Coral Gables Art Cinema beginning this Friday. The cinema provided a screener link for the purpose of my review. Images are courtesy of the film’s official website.
Balancing humor and poetically stunning black and white cinematography, Güeros tells the story of two brothers: Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) and young Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre). After one too many pranks in his native Veracruz, their single mother sends Tomás to live with his mellow slacker of an older brother in Mexico City. Sombra shares an apartment with Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), who has an anger problem. When the teenage Tomás arrives in Mexico City, he soon realizes that Sombra and Santos may be even more clueless than he. They live in a dilapidated apartment that does not have electricity and are enrolled in the public university (UNAM), which is in the middle of a long strike, which took place in 1999 and lasted almost a year. The title, Güeros refers to a slang word intended to mean “blonde” or “lighter skinned,” which, depending on circumstances, is used derisively to refer to someone who does not belong in a specific social context.
The loose narrative that Director Alonso Ruiz Palacios utilizes emphasizes the natural flow of the story, which touches on several themes, including inequality in Mexico, the complexity of the mega city, the challenges of public education and the feeling of loss the two brothers still feel after their father’s passing. The beginning of the movie shows several idle moments of aimlessness. For starters, the strike at the University speaks to the idleness and lost moments of Sombra and Santos, who are not engaged in a direct way and seem to be wasting away – as many of those who endured that strike did (they choose to go on “strike against the strike”).
The arrival of Tomás changes this dynamic, however, as the young kid is full of energy and nostalgia for those days when their dad was around. He carries a tape that his father gave him by one of the best musicians in Mexican rock history, an allegory for the golden days. He finds that this mythical musician is still around but is close to death, which gives the trio an excuse to venture out from their home. Ruiz Palacios shows the impact of this music without ever revealing it via lengthy shots of the characters using headphones to listen to tape and focusing on their reactions that shift from moved to amazed and ends in a deeply affected state. The genius of this strategy is that it allows the music to be part of the characters, not the focus of the film itself.
Throughout their adventure, the three characters find themselves travailing the city, which at times shows a disconnect between them and the variety of characters found in each of the neighborhoods. Güeros’ portrayal of Mexico City is one of the most honest depictions in the film. An ode to one of the most complex cities in Latin America, Güeros explores a journey of self-discovery that parallels an exploration of Mexico City in an intimate, real way.
The film takes on a self-referential and funny turn once the trio end up in the University campus, where the strike is in full swing. One of the protesters turns his attention directly to the camera and starts talking about the film as it is, in a straightforward way, making fun of the film itself. The conversation immerses the audience in the filmmaking process itself and removes the real or perceived barrier between the director and the audience, also doing away with any lengthy expository dialogue. Ruiz Palacios cuts straight through the typical Hollywood conventions and addresses us and his actors in a dialogue devoid of fluff, a narrative that has a sense of humor but questions its social relevance at the same time.
At the protest, we also meet Ana (Ilse Salas), one of the leaders of the student movement and Sombra’s love interest. The encounter is intense at a personal level but is also one of the key moments that Ruiz Palacios uses to showcase the embedded social inequality that exists in Mexico City. The debates at the university ring so true, it feels like one is experiencing the university on a vividly genuine level, in a script that could have only been written by someone who was personally impacted by that protest. Ruiz Palacios has described in an interview that he was close to attending UNAM when the protest erupted but learned first-hand from friends how it affected hundreds of people who both supported and were against the university takeover.
This self-referential humor happens once more when Sombra has a fit at an elegant party that Ana takes the trio to, and directs a rant to the crowd – and by extension, the film’s audience — about the hypocrisy in Mexican art house films that parade non-trained actors and complain about the country’s ailments abroad. The self-referential awareness of the precarious situation of art that can be at once constructive and destructive reveal a filmmaker who is keenly aware of the sociopolitical issues in Mexico and takes a constructive stand via the same medium he criticizes. This is surely an art-house film that does away with clichés by directly poking fun at them in a playful way.
The black and white film, presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio, combined with the naturalistic acting style speaks to the influence of the French New Wave, but this film is so much more. The narrative encompasses an honest account of a sociopolitical reality that is tough to encapsulate. The film also shows a coming of age of sorts for Sombra, who is alienated and detached at the onset of the film but finds the courage to connect to his little brother, his friend and his love interest throughout the journey to finally come to terms and become part of the world he inhabits. In a nod to 400 Blows, Riva Palacio ends the film with a shot of Sombra who turns around to the camera with an all-knowing gaze that signals growth and a recognition of the self. Güeros never takes itself too seriously but remains a poetic film.
Güeros runs 102 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (it has cursing, smoking and some sexuality). It opened this past Friday, June 26, in our Miami are at the Coral Gables Art Cinema where it plays until July 2. For dates in other parts in the U.S. and Canada, visit this page, where there are dates scheduled through September. All images are courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.
June 26, 2015
On the surface, the filmmaker Crispin Hellion Glover (a.k.a. Crispin Glover the actor of Back to the Future and Charlie’s Angels) might seem obsessed with freaks. But after receiving his 5,000-word-plus answer to a few questions I sent him via email, it is apparent that his seeming obsession is … a little more. Referring to his two films in his in-progress “It” trilogy, What Is It? (2005) and It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE (2007), Glover wrote, “I would say the films do not break rules, but it is true that many people are used to a certain amount of standards of cinematic syntax that are offered by most corporately-funded and distributed films. They are also used to a certain kind of fare offered by corporately-funded and distributed cinema that does not go beyond the realm of this, which can be considered good and evil or, in another word, taboo.”
He sounds like a fellow totally up the Independent Ethos’ alley.
It’s extremely rare that I’m not granted a preview of a film before talking to a filmmaker. Actually, this is a first. it seems Glover is very controlling over his films. First of all, his movies are only available on 35mm, and Glover is always present when they are presented, plus, I am told, he does not grant press comp tickets. So I had to really on a press kit to get some idea of what these films are about. For his second film in the trilogy, the film’s synopsis goes thusly…
It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE goes into uncharted cinematic territory with screenwriter Steven C. Stewart starring in this semi-autobiographical, psycho-sexual, tale about a man with severe cerebral palsy and a fetish for girls with long hair. Part horror film, part exploitation picture and part documentary of a man who cannot express his sexuality in the way he desires, (due to his physical condition), this fantastical and often humorous tale is told completely from Stewart’s actual point of view — that of someone who has lived for years watching people do things he will never be able to do. Here, Stewart’s character is something of a lady killer, seducing a troubled, recently divorced mother (Margit Carstensen), her teenage daughter and any number of other ladies he encounters along the way.
“Ever since I read the screenplay in 1987 I knew I had to produce the film,” said Glover about what attracted him to Stewart’s story.
Stewart also plays a role in Glover’s directorial feature debut, What Is It? That film’s synopsis is described as:
Known for creating many memorable, incredibly quirky characters onscreen as an actor, Glover’s first effort as a director will not disappoint fans of his offbeat sensibilities and eccentric taste. Featuring a cast largely comprised of actors with Down’s Syndrome, the film is not about Down’s Syndrome. Glover describes it as “Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home as tormented by an hubristic racist inner psyche.”
Glover writes about these movies with passion. However, some think they are performance pieces that should be looked at as suspect (here’s one not entirely positive reaction to his first film). I agree that it should be taken with a grain of salt, but the effort isn’t entirely vacuous. I later learned his 5,000 word response to my email questions was not exactly exclusive, as he pulls from a document he has written over the years to answer common questions. However, that document is a mere 1600 words, according to this article from Flavorwire, so I think I got some quality answers from the filmmaker who swears he does not do this to undermine journalists but help them out with the arduous transcribing process (and ask any of us, transcribing sucks). This article from San Diego City Beat clarifies Glover’s intentions.
That said, I’ve decided to share the entirety of Glover’s responses, unedited in the rest of this post. He is in South Florida this Sunday and Monday at Fort Lauderdale’s Cinema Paradiso to screen the movie’s as well as host “Crispin the Cinema. First off, for a short version of this article, check out the Miami Herald, which published my original article based on the interview (jump through the image below):
And here, the moment you have been waiting to pour through, Crispin Hellion Glover. Besides getting into detail about his two films and his “big slideshow,” he touches on David Lynch, the flicker of 35mm and his father, actor Bruce Glover, who will star in his as yet untitled next film:
What do you hope the audience takes away from it?
Crsipin Glover will appear at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale over the course of two days with his two films, It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE (tickets) and What Is It?(tickets) on Sunday, June 28, and Monday, June 29. The films are preceded by Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show, Parts 1 and 2 and followed by a Q&A session with the actor/director. He will also be present to sign copies of his books. For more info, visit’ Glover’s website: www.CrispinGlover.com. All images comes from his site and used by permission.
(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
Miami has a bit of a local hero in the indie film world. Kenny Riches wrote, produced and directed The Strongest Man, a film he shot in Miami with a local artist (and casual BMX stunt rider) in the lead role. The film went on to have its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival before coming back to Miami for a couple of packed screenings at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival and signing a distribution deal with FilmBuff (though the film has yet to appear on the site).
The film follows a character simply named Beef (Robert “Meatball” Lorie) who has his gold BMX stolen, and heads off into the mean streets of Miami to find it. On his way he struggles with other searches that involve friendship, love and his spirit animal: a chicken. The film has a unique view of Miami, something Riches tuned into when he moved here a little over three years ago from Salt Lake City. I’ve gotten to know Riches personally, so it’s weird and feels like a conflict of interest to review his film. I have interviewed him twice for the Miami New Times, however. The latest Q&A appears today on the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog. We talk about the reaction to his film at the festivals and more. Read it by jumping through the blog’s logo below:
We also talked about a curious quirk in his work, a humanoid figment of Beef’s imagination made up of dead palm fronds and glowing red eyes. I asked Riches about the similarity of this creature and the “ghost” in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 movie Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a personal favorite of this writer (Film Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). Riches admitted that I wasn’t the first to make the comparison, but he has yet to watch the film.
Here’s a film still from Uncle Boonmee:
And this is the creature from The Strongest Man posing for a photo with actor Patrick Fugit, who plays a meditation guru with a German accent who guides Beef to his discovery of his spirit animal in Riches’ film:
During two interviews with Riches (here is the first, also from The Miami New Times: Miami Filmmaker Kenny Riches on His Selection to Sundance), I checked whether Riches had caught up with Weerasethakul’s film, but he admitted he hadn’t. During our second chat, he offered details behind the inspiration of this lumpy creature with glowing red eyes that haunts Beef throughout the film. It’s actually grounded in a personal late-night experience he had in Miami.
“Just driving around Miami, you see those piles of dead palm fronds,” he says. “They’re just lying by the side of the road waiting to be picked up, and the leaves turn black. One night in particular, I was driving home with Cara [Despain, the film’s art director] from our art studio, and there was one of those leaves — a huge one — hanging on a pole somewhere. We stopped at the light, and we didn’t know what it was as we were pulling up to it. It was just this kind of looming figure. It was really scary because we couldn’t really tell at all what it was until we got close.”
It was the vision Riches needed to plant the seed of this creature in his imagination. “I started talking about how it would be cool to have something signifying Beef’s anxiety, something that can represent a physical manifestation of it, and just picking up one of those palm fronds, you hear the rustling of it.”
The eyes came from the after-hours flashing red lights of traffic signals that many who go out late at night in Miami might be familiar with. “It started because of the blinking red streetlights in downtown,” says Riches. “We don’t have that in Salt Lake City. The lights are just always normal. They don’t switch over late at night instead of flashing yellow and flashing red lights.”
The Strongest Man will have a week-long theatrical run at O Cinema Miami Shores, beginning this Friday, June 26. It is also opening in limited release in Tampa, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. In Miami, Riches will host a filmmaker workshop at FilmGate Interactive, on July 10, to talk about his Sundance experience (details and ticket info here). All images are courtesy of Kenny Riches. Except the still from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (courtesy Strand Releasing).
June 5, 2015
Results is one of the most creative, honest romantic comedies made recently. It follows the story of personal trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders), a driven and determined trainer who also has anger issues that are not quite under her control or even completely acknowledged by her yet. Kat works for Trevor (Guy Pearce) the founder of Power 4 Life, a gym that fashions itself a lifestyle, complete with a philosophy for life, with Trevor at the forefront. Though he fancies himself a guru, Trevor also seems unaware of his character flaws. He believes so deeply in his own Soul 4 Life philosophy, he takes himself seriously to a fault.
Into this mix, arrives Danny (Kevin Corrigan, in a wonderfully tic-filled performance with excellent comedic timing), a New Yorker that has recently moved to Austin, Texas, after inheriting a large sum of money. Danny is an odd character but brutally honest and self-aware –a stark contrast to Trevor. Danny shows up at the gym, and he is unable to articulate clearly what he wants. His life seems to be out of control, and when asked by Trevor what his goals are, he just says, “I just want to be able to take a punch.”
Kat starts to train Danny, which soon becomes painfully awkward. Danny is extremely uncomfortable in his own skin but at least ties to connect with people. He quickly develops an attraction for Kat. Danny’s half-empty mansion and his own life philosophy creates a disconnect between him and Kat, who tries to encourage him during personal training sessions but makes no inroads with him. Coaxing her with a drink and some weed after a session, he steals a kiss. The next day, he finally goes after her, and she goes into a full-on anger fit, to which Danny responds, “This is not making me any less attracted to you.”
Results is the latest feature-length film by Andrew Bujalski. After the trippy existentialist journey into vintage artificial intelligence (Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber), Results brings him back to exploring romance in all its awkward glory through intriguingly flawed characters. While he was known to be at the forefront of the mumblecore movement (An Essential Guide to Mumblecore), which now seems like a passé categorization, the writer/director has grown into an insightful storyteller with characters that resonate because of their failings. Previous films such as Funny Ha Ha (2002), featuring a young woman who stumbles to find meaningful connections in post-collegiate limbo, explored emotional struggles that were verbalized in less than articulate terms. Bujalski soon became more refined. Mutual Appreciation (2005), where an ambivalence about long-term commitment drove the action, still stands as one of his strongest works. It’s a perfect example of this subtle character-driven narrative.
In Results, the action is also driven by each of the characters’ own failings, which provides a sort of meta-narrative of the unspoken motivations that drive the action: confusion and love. While mumblecore was known for its natural acting, it is now clear that Bujalski is exposing something deeper than natural acting, he is showing the complex interplay between action seen, spoken and felt, through a patient eye that finds the humanity in people, even they’re gym rats.
This character-driven approach stands out in Results, and gives the movie an interesting shape, rather than the formulaic boy-meets-girl device so familiar in Hollywood films. Smulders and Pearce give magnificently modest life to Kat and Trevor. They spar, argue, get mad at each other but otherwise seem incapable of truly expressing what they feel for one another. It is suggested early in the film that they had a fling, although by the time we catch up with them, they seemed to have figured out that their liaison was unprofessional. However, their interactions are marred by that comfortable/uncomfortable dialectic that starts to really make sense the more we learn about the couple.
For a romantic comedy, Results is also very funny in a smart way. Bujalski has created a deep narrative about relationships that is character-driven. Bujalski’s approach is delicate and kind; the funny moments come from the collision of all three characters, as they stumble through articulating their emotions. For instance, when Danny meets Trevor, he notices a poster in his office and reads it out loud, “Fear, excuses, surrender.” Trevor seems perplexed. It turns out the poster was actually blocked by something else that Trevor removes revealing the full poster that reads: “No fear, no excuses, no surrender.” The contrast between the two characters is stark, and it foretells many obtusely comedic moments scattered throughout this subtle, yet powerful, film.
Results runs 105 minutes and is rated R (for weed use, sex, profanity). It opens in our Miami are on June 12 at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the Coral Gable campus of the University of Miami. Results has already opened in some cities and is scheduled to open in select cities at later dates. For current playdates, visit this page. All images are courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, who also provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.
Biopics are often constrained by an obligation to transmit their subject’s life in a couple of hours of cinema. While some of those films can be fine, it’s refreshing when a filmmaker can offer something different. Director Bill Pohlad along with writers Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner do this in two ways with Love & Mercy, their exploration of the music and the madness of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. First, they focus on two distinct periods of Wilson’s life. In the late 1960s Wilson took to composing and experimenting in the studio while the rest of the band went on tour. This period produced the albums Pet Sounds (1966) and its follow-up, the unreleased Smile album. In the late ‘80s, Wilson became a recluse. Back then, he seemed like another causality of LSD, like Syd Barret of Pink Floyd. Despite some ill-recevied solo albums, he was out of the spotlight. What was more interesting was that he had spent two to three years in self-imposed bed rest. Otherwise, the wider public no longer seemed to care about Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys.
The second way the story unfolds is through Wilson’s music — in both its presence and absence. The late ‘60s was the beginning of Wilson’s most creative period, and the work would become legendary. Unfortunately, the wide acclaim wouldn’t come until decades later. In the late ‘80s, he was so far gone, a sense of irrelevance clouds the era. Neither of these periods are a well-understood part of the musician’s career. He was an outcast during both, but with hindsight, he has enjoyed a rebirth, influencing bands like Stereolab and Of Montreal, among others in the ‘90s*. In 2004, Wilson revitalized Smile with a tour and an album called Brian Wilson Presents Smile. He’s still recording new music today.
Music was redemption for Wilson, and the filmmakers understand this, alternating between the two eras for the movie’s duration, telling a story with two different actors playing the same man as a musician caught enthrall with the process of creation (Paul Dano) and a musician denied it utterly (John Cusack). For a director who hasn’t directed a film since 1990, Love & Mercy is an accomplished work. Of course, in the interim Pohlad has produced films like Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), and 12 Years a Slave (2013), so he’s worked with some amazing directors since then. But the film stands on its own in every aspect of cinema and hopefully will not be forgotten come awards season. It features amazing work in every element you can imagine, from editing the dual storylines together and the performances that bring them to life. There’s also meticulous production design. Those familiar with the album covers of The Beach Boys will be astonished at the detail in the scenes that depict their creations. The cinematography by Robert D. Yeoman, who has been working with Wes Anderson since Bottle Rocket (1996), highlights his keen eye for period atmosphere.
Ultimately, PohIad shows great understanding that the story of Wilson — who also cooperated with the production — is as much about the music as it is about the personality associated with it. It’s exhilarating to watch the construction of the songs in the studio. There are many distinct instruments playing signature, familiar parts from certain songs. It’s what makes Wilson so brilliant, he understands the qualities of so many instruments and played to their strengths and sometimes pushed them beyond. But he also found ways to use the studio as part of the album. From ambient noise and little accidents, Pohlad pays tribute to every aspect of Wilson’s creativity in this movie.
The first standout scene in the studio, when the large band of Pet Sounds assembles to perform the first bit of music, feels appropriately unsettling. The music they produced is angular and unfinished. Without calling too much attention to itself, it foretells the terrible looming failure of the album, which was a commercial disappointment for the group. But gradually things come together, and the studio musicians Brian has gathered clearly begin to delight in the work, even when Brian brings in a couple of dogs to bark for the record.
Sure, it’s madcap, but it also speaks to the din in Brian’s head, something the film establishes at the very beginning. In order to highlight the sounds in his head, Love & Mercy opens in darkness. A chaotic stew of famous Beach Boys musical bits eventually meld together to form the semblance of a song that crescendos as the camera pulls out from an earhole and then cuts to silence after a visual cut to the foot of an ornate bed, where the viewer is confronted with the lump of an obese bearded man meant to be Wilson, lying prone in the eerie hush of dreary silence.
Wilson has long said he has been plagued by internal voices and music, and in this movie you get the sense of a man struggling to exorcise these voices by externalizing them through music. There’s creativity but also a curse. Beyond cooperating with sharing his story, Wilson also gave Oscar-winning soundtrack composer Atticus Ross access to all the masters he had. There are bits of Beach Boys music you may have never heard used in the score, assembled by Ross as both extradiegetic score and narrative musical hallucinatory moments key to the story inside Wilson’s head.
But on the other side, there are scenarios brought to life in the studio, like Brian’s painstaking approach to create the chugging cello parts in “Good Vibrations.” There are also incredibly visual moments. During a particularly harrowing montage toward the end of the film, we get a few seconds of the studio band in fireman helmets playing some unheard section of Smile with Brian twirling in the middle, shirt open, under his own fireman’s helmet, space eyed and holding smoking flares. The heartbreaking coda of “Surf’s Up” plays over the image that is a mixture of both creative triumph and melancholy madness.
Some may wonder if the actors did their own singing. To my ears, I cannot tell that they did. It’s almost jarring when we first see Dano open his mouth and hear Wilson’s voice come out of it, so I doubt he did (Ed: Dano did, making his performance that more impressive). Also, The Beach Boys’ harmonizing has often been considered some of the most complex singing ever recorded. But it’s a testament to Dano’s acting that he can capture Wilson’s awkward ticks so that the viewer can soon accept seeing this quirky actor as Wilson.
Above all, music drives the narrative, and one could consider almost every other scene and how it is used to push the narrative forward via music. After that unsettling opening scene, the film’s more straightforward narrative begins at the Cadillac dealership where the ’80s Brian met his wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The smooth jazz sounds of Kenny G’s “Songbird” plays softly over the P.A. It’s actually an annoyingly high-pitched, simplistic melody, the antithesis to the complex harmonies Wilson created with The Beach Boys. When Brian asks to sit in one car with Melinda, they close the doors, sealing out the cloying melody, and he even locks the doors. Maybe he’s locking out the music, but he’s also finding some alone time from his bodyguard. By the late ‘80s, Wilson had long been under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy was a famous celebrity psychologist, who actually succeeded in getting Wilson out of bed and the funk of depression that had him habitually abusing drugs. But, by the late ‘80s, he made Wilson his only case and inserted himself as a business partner and even co-songwriter. He micro-managed Wilson’s life with medication and around-the-clock surveillance.
But that never meant the music and voices had left Wilson alone. Though heavily medicated during this time, Love & Mercy also shows Brian continuing to struggle with the phantom sounds, but with no creative outlet compared to the ‘60s storyline. When the real music appears, we get a glimpse of what it means to Brian in real life. During a sailing trip with Melinda, the sound of “Sloop John B (I Wanna Go Home)” emanates from the pilot house through a cranked up, trebly speaker. Landy’s son captains the boat. Brian and Melinda sit toward the bow, and Brian asks the captain to turn it off. Clearly not understanding Brian, the captain yells toward the bow, “It’s a tribute to you, Brian.” Then Brian casually explains, “It sort of destroys my brain.”
It’s a sad way to show how negative the specter of his old group has become to him. Besides that moment, there is no Beach Boys music in this section of Brian’s life. There’s one lovely moment, however, of Brian sharing his talents with Melinda that also serves as a subtle musical declaration of the film’s title. When she comes over to his house for her first visit, he sits at the piano to play a romantic melody and suddenly stops. Her jaw drops, and she asks what it was. Brian replies, “Something I came up with when I first saw you.” She asks what he might plan to do with it. He says, “Nothing … Every once in a while your soul comes out to play.”
Those with a sharp ear and a familiarity with Wilson’s solo work will notice that melody is the first utterance of the film’s title, “Love and Mercy,” which also happens to be the opening track of his 1988 debut solo album Brian Wilson. That the director chooses to reveal the film’s title through music speaks to how important music is not only to Wilson but the film itself. Brian Wilson fans are bound to have a blast with this film, but it also goes to show how important music is in driving the film’s narrative in subtle ways.
Still, the music also works without much context, which invites any member of the audience to find their own way to appreciate how music works as a narrative device. Pohlad constructs his story musically, as well, trusting in all the film’s separate parts to work on transmitting the story. It’s easy to fill in the blanks of Wilson’s relationship with Dr. Landy when Giamatti gives a powerful, stark performance. Landy’s intrusiveness is first revealed during Brian’s and Melinda’s first date: a Moody Blues concert. During the climax of wails of “Nights in White Satin,” Melinda leans over to tell Brian, “This song is so great.” Brian quietly agrees, “Yeah.” Landy, whose sitting on Melinda’s other side, leans to her to ask, “What did you say?” where she must explain her exchange with Brian. Landy will later corner Melinda at his office in an attempt to win her over to his side, explaining that, as Brian’s doctor, he will need her to report to him whatever Brian tells her. It’s a twisted scene that also features one of several moments where Giamatti is allowed to show off his grand acting without a pause for reverse shot. He blends malice and sincerity to creepy, riveting heights, and Pohlad gives him room, not allowing for any edits to taint or manipulate his performances. It’s not slow-paced editing but the creation of tension by expert acting. Cusack is also allowed moments to shine in this way.
Mike Love (Jake Abel) and the Wilsons’ patriarch (Bill Camp) are the nemeses of the other part of Brian’s life. Mike is comfortable with the early hits about California girls and surfing, and he becomes resentful with new tangents in the songwriting, impatient with Brian’s meticulousness and resistant to any rule breaking, like including studio banter during a solo in the middle of “Here Today.” He calls it “unprofessional.” When he’s given the lyrics to “Hang On To Your Ego,” Mike asks Brian, “Is this a druggie song?” and refuses to sing the lyrics until Brian explains otherwise and the other Beach Boys take Brian’s side. Love is also the one to say Pet Sounds won’t even make gold, so now it’s time to go back to writing “real music.”
Murry Wilson is the precursor and parallel to Landy, who like Mike, is also turned off by attempts at more profound songwriting by Brian, questioning the ironic lyrics of “God Only Knows.” After he’s fired as the band’s manager, the elder Wilson interrupts a recording session to present the band with his new discovery, The Sunrays, and their Beach Boys imitation song, “I Live For the Sun.” Brian retreats to the studio, where he can hear the grating single through the walls, and he’s overtaken by a nightmare blur of his own creative voices clashing with the din of The Sunrays’ amateurish harmonies.
Love & Mercy is filled with these small details also expressed by even slighter but still fascinating supporting characters. Van Dyke Parks (Max Schneider) was an important collaborator of Wilson’s, but the narrative stays focused on Wislon’s experience. Van’s biggest moment comes when Love bullies him out of a Beach Boys meeting at a pool. Brian is treading water in the deep end, pleading with his band mates to join him there so Phil Spector (Jonathan Slavin) can’t hear them because he has the house bugged. Dennis Wilson (Kenny Wormald), who’s standing in the shallow side of the pool that the others are sitting around, counters, “We’re too shallow for the deep end.” It’s a sly metaphor for the gulf between the members of the group.
The film is rich with these musical and dramatic instances that capture life moments with musical and creative resonance. Pohlad does more justice to a life lived by focusing on the details and showing less concern for a big story arc. That’s not life. Life is a chaotic mix of moments filled with their own highs and lows. It’s not unlike the shredding given to Smile, torn apart across other albums, including Smiley Smile (1967) and Surf’s Up (1971). Wilson also comes across as a person torn. It’s about music in abundance and the absence of it, and how it tears about a creative and crazy person whose legend has become inextricable from his music. “These things I’ll be until I die.”
*Into the 2000s there’s also Grizzly Bear.
You can read my interview with the director here:
Director of Beach Boys pic Love & Mercy talks about externalizing Brian Wilson’s musical madness and how to deal with the character of Mike Love
Love & Mercy runs 120 minutes and is rated PG-13 (for cussing and the depiction of complications with drugs and rock ‘n’ roll). It opens in limited release in the Miami area this Friday, June 5. In our South Florida area, the venues hosting the film are as follows:
- Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Aventura Mall 24 Theatres and Regal South Beach 18
- Keys: Tropic Cinema Key West
- Broward County: Cinemark Paradise 24, The Classic Gateway Theatre
- Boca/Palm Beach counties: Living Room Theaters/Boca, Regal Shadowood 16/Boca, Cinemark Palace 20/Boca, Muvico Parisian 20, Movies of Delray 5, Delray Marketplace 12, Cinemark Boynton Beach 14
Update: The film expands on June 12 in South Florida at these theaters:
- Silverspot Coconut Creek Cinemas Coconut Creek
- Cinepolis Grove 15 Coconut Grove
- Oakwood 18 Hollywood
- O Cinema Miami Beach Miami Beach
- Sunset Place 24 Theatres
For other theaters across the U.S., visit the film’s website and put in your zip code in the box in the upper left corner via this link. All images courtesy of Roadside Attractions, who also hosted a preview screening at the Coral Gables Art Cinema for the purpose of this review.