L&M_1_SHEET_MECH_FIN_WEB1429825458Biopics 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, theLM_03545.CR2 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.

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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.

Paul Dano in Love & Mercy

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 LM_00304.CR2(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.

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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 LOVEANDMERCY081431647886serves 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, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks Love & Mercy“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.

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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.”

Hans Morgenstern

*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.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Maries_StoryMost everyone knows the true story about Helen Keller:  In late 19h century Alabama, a near feral girl, who is deaf, mute and blind, grows up to become a published author after being educated by a teacher named Anne Sullivan who came to be known as “the Miracle Worker.” The Miracle Worker was also the name of the 1962 movie starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke directed by Arthur Penn, based on William Gibson’s play. After the director and the actresses all won Oscars, The Miracle Worker became a classic.

Now comes Marie’s Story, which is based on a similar true story from around the same era. Just as the story of Helen Keller was making waves, there was “A French Helen Keller” (read an original news report by the Sacred Heart Review in 1909). The impoverished parents of 10-year-old Marie Heurtin didn’t know what to do with their daughter who was born blind and deaf and could only grunt and scream. They loved her and didn’t want to see her institutionalized, so they brought her to the sisters of La Sagesse at Larnay, who specialized in boarding and educating deaf girls. Sister Marguerite was credited for taking on the challenge of this girl with more handicaps than the convent was used to. Eventually, Marie became a teacher for other girls with her condition.

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So is it worth anyone’s while to see the story of Helen Keller again in French and with nuns? The answer is simple: it sure is when you have such a fine example of astute, powerfully moving filmmaking. Even if you know what happens, Marie’s Story is guaranteed to move you to tears, and you won’t feel manipulated by it. Director Jean-Pierre Améris, who also co-wrote the script with Philippe Blasband, tells the story in three distinct acts that are tightly woven together and never wastes a single detail.

We first meet Sister Marguerite (a charming Isabelle Carré), who we are immediately showed suffers from a terminal illness. She can barely contain her excitement about the impending challenge of Marie (Ariana Rivoire, who is deaf in real life). The mother superior (Brigitte Catillon playing stern with low-key curiosity and patience) expresses her doubts and concerns for Marguerite, wiping blood off the sister’s nose, as she smiles about the upcoming challenge of Marie, who is 14 in this story. There’s a sense that the nun needs this to fulfill a purpose in her shortened life.

The film spends much time showing us the frustration of Marguerite but also a stubborn patience full of grace. Rivoire throws her body into her role in impressive tantrums that sometimes end in her escaping up a tree. The beautiful period setting of the countryside enhances the earthy battle between these two women. Sometimes the music by Sonia Wieder-Atherton even turns light and bouncy, cutting the tension with a sense of humor.

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Eventually, the breakthrough scene will arrive, but it doesn’t come without Améris showing us great effort by teacher and student. There are times when both seem to exhaust one another into giving in. But ultimately, the teacher wins not by forcing Marie to learn but showing her how she might be able to help herself. The breakthrough comes by empowering Marie, and its refreshingly convened with action, and does something wonderful in its message and storytelling:  It speaks not to Marie’s handicap but her autonomy.

Améris doesn’t beat you over the head with this, as he mostly keeps his camera at a distance. The power of the film never needs heightened scenes with music (as charming as it may be at times) to make you feel for these women. What happens between them is intimate and handled low-key. Similarly, we are not constantly reminded of Sister Marguerite’s illness, but we know it’s there after that initial scene when we meet her, and her mission on earth becomes something more than a quest to do good before she shucks off her mortal coil.

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When her illness forces her into bed rest, Marguerite must teach Marie one last important lesson: the permanence of death. It’s a mind-blowing concept in the Christian world of this film. Even the Mother Superior comes out to share that death is a painful thing and no amount of faith can make it any less painlful. Yet, still Marie can come to grasp it, mourn it and celebrate the time she had with her teacher. It’s a beautifully shown revelation that never feels cloying. So many Hollywood films wring the hell out of these moments, but here is a film that can show you how to do it right, so even if you think you are familiar with this story, it’s worth watching again to see how filmmakers, including actors, tell it in the most surprisingly delicate manner that never betrays or affronts its potency.

Hans Morgenstern

Marie’s Story runs 94 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (it doesn’t feature any offensive material). It opens this Friday, May 29 in our South Florida area at the MDC Tower Theater. It maybe playing in other areas of the U.S. or coming soon. For a list of theaters showing it, visit this link. Film Movement provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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While we’re sharing old David Bowie reviews along with reissue news, it’s only been a few years since we mentioned that Bowie’s brilliant 2002 album Heathen was reissued on vinyl (David Bowie’s ‘Heathen’ album to see vinyl reissue). Well, now it seems that it’s coming back again, along with another version of Reality (2003), which was only reissued last year on vinyl, also via Music On Vinyl. According to Bowienet, this time the albums will arrive in more luxurious tri-fold sleeves. We may also have a change in audio quality. Friday Music, the boutique vinyl reissue company handling these reissues, boasts,  “mastered impeccably by Joe Reagoso (David Bowie/Jeff Beck/Deep Purple) for the first time on audiophile vinyl.” The Heathen vinyl will also be a translucent blue and the Reality disc will be clear.

The Bowie news page tantalizingly leaves us with “Stay tuned for more news regarding Friday Music releases.” Hopefully, that could mean even more desired early-period Bowie albums that were released on RCA and have been out of print on vinyl for much longer than these albums. There have been some cruel teases that never came to fruition (EMI/Capitol Vaults delays Bowie reissues… again) and random reissues in the past (Reissue of the year: Station to Station (plus exclusive edit for “Wild is the Wind” on mp3), but nothing career-spanning, so albums like the so-called Berlin trilogy would be welcome news.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in these two later-period works. Heathen stands as an alltime favorite Bowie album for this writer. So far, it’s the only one of these reissues that has a release date, slated for June 23 (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link). David Bowie - Heathen album artReality‘s release date remains TBA. Both albums mark a certain era for Bowie. The start of the 2000s for the rock icon hint at a creative artist very aware of being in his autumnal years. It’s a mix of self-referencing nostalgia and a new-found creativity. The two albums each featured two covers among the original Bowie compositions. “Cactus” by the Pixies and “I’ve Been Waiting For You” by Neil Young on Heathen and “Pablo Picasso” by Johnathan Richman and “Try Some, Buy Some” by George Harrison on Reality.

Heathen also did death and mortality way better than hours… (From the Archives: David Bowie’s hours…reissue on vinyl and my 1999 review). It went from self-centered to more aware of the subject’s relationship to time and place. There’s a wistful tribute to a vintage New York TV show called “The Uncle Floyd Show” (“Slip Away”) that also featured the stylophone, which Bowie made famous on “Space Oddity.” The album was capped off with the incredibly powerful “Heathen (the Rays),” which subtly referenced the fall of the Twin Towers. Then there are some of the songs that Bowie made of old ideas (“Afraid” and the outtake “Wood Jackson”) and self-covers, like the B-side “Conversation Piece.”

But the best part of Heathen were the all-new originals, featuring Bowie at his most original. There’s the creepy “I Would Be Your Slave,” with some unknowable wind instrument pulsing and whooshing below a melancholic string section and a skittish beat. Following it, Bowie references space and the Stardust Cowboy who inspired Ziggy Stardust with “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship.” There’s another skittering beat and a swooning string part, but it also features a squonking baritone sax and rubbery guitar licks.

I never reviewed the album, but I loved it, and it was great that Bowie found new energy, rebooting himself after the lackluster hours… with a never-released album of self-covers called Toy that preceded Heathen, which included some songs from the Toy sessions. I did review Reality. I was granted a preview CD of the album, about a month ahead of release. I can’t recall who I wrote it for. It may have been the “Miami New Times,” when they ran reviews in print. If not, it could have been the record collectors magazine, “Goldmine.”

David Bowie Reality album art

DAVID BOWIE

Reality

ISO/Columbia Records (CK 90576)

It has become the ultimate litmus test for David Bowie:  How good is any new release compared to his 1980 album Scary Monsters?  Anyone who has followed Bowie’s reviews will notice critics pulling out the Scary Monsters card, if not, even further back to the Eno trilogy of 1977-78: Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger.

But it’s been well over twenty years since the release of these albums, and Bowie has recorded some comparable works in the last decade alone, including 1993’s Buddha of Suburbia, 1995’s Outside, 1997’s Earthling and last year’s Heathen. Bowie’s music is certainly in a renaissance of sorts and Reality, released this past September, carries on that trend.

Producer Tony Visconti deserves some credit, proving to be a magical presence behind the boards for Bowie. He’s back for a second year straight, previously not having worked with Bowie since Scary Monsters and, prior to that, having produced Bowie’s acclaimed work with Eno in the seventies.

Reality moves dynamically from song to song. Bowie has written some of the catchiest tunes in ten years, like the album’s single “New Killer Star,” and truly propulsive numbers like “Looking For Water” and “Reality,” the latter sounding suspiciously similar to “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).”  Most of the tracks have odd quirks like the sputtering guitar intro of “New Killer Star,” which proves Bowie’s been listening to Radiohead and bands on the Thrill Jockey label.  There are also some plaintive moments like the creepy “The Loneliest Guy” and the jazzy “Bring Me the Disco King,” which highlights Mike Garson’s jittery piano work and seems to mimic the music of David Sylvian. With Reality, Bowie proves he’s much more than the sum of his work in the seventies and a vital source in the contemporary music scene.

*  *  *

I can’t say I disagree with this review, almost 12 years later, and I must say it reads like something I would have written for the “Miami New Times,” so it probably first appeared there. I’ll leave you with a live version of “New Killer Star.”

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

hours vinylThe news came last week via the official website of David Bowie: Bowie’s 1999 album hours… will finally see official release on vinyl by Music On Vinyl on June 15. There are two limited editions on colored vinyl. One is mint green, the other is mixed purple and blue. Both are limited to 2,500 copies. There is also a regular black vinyl version that is not limited. All vinyl is weighted 180g. The records also feature 12-page booklets.

None of the press I read has noted the audio source, though I have sent MOV an email asking what it might be. If you are a true audiophile, you want to know what generational loss you might be getting here. It’s a good sign that Bowie’s site announced the release, and not long ago, the same label reissued Heathen, which they said came from the same source as the original release (David Bowie’s ‘Heathen’ album to see vinyl reissue).

I reviewed this album around the time of its official release, in Oct. 4, 1999, in Vol. 25, No. 25, Issue 505 of “Goldmine Magazine.” Those familiar with the music writing on this blog know, Bowie is a favorite (check out the articles tagged here). Though I often write fondly of this musician, I could sense something amiss on this album. The album before, 1997’s Earthling, was so much more interesting, so when this album arrived it came as a disappointment. Below you will find the original draft of the my review for hours… before it was edited and published. I can’t find an archive featuring the original published review. I think I might have given it two-and-half stars out of five. All these years later, I don’t think my opinion has changed much, but I would not call it a terrible album, just a little weaker than what I expect from Bowie, so pardon my use of “balls” and “blemish,” as it’s still better than a lot of music in general:

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Hours…
Virgin (7243 8 48157 0 7)

For David Bowie, the ‘90s were a strong bounce back from the hit and miss decade of the ‘80s. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect bounce back, and his final installment of the decade, Hours…, is just another blemish among some of the greatest music of Bowie’s career. With this new album the oomph of Earthling is gone, and the charming whimsy of The Buddha of Suburbia is nowhere to be found.

What made Bowie so great in the ‘90s was his lack of pretension. With his ‘90s albums, whenever Bowie thought too hard about his songs and music he screwed it up. In 1992, he gave us Tin Machine II out of an obligation to counter the press; cynicism that Tin Machine was just another Bowie experiment, and 1995’s Outside was constrained by its being a musical interpretation of a short story by Bowie. Hours… fails because of its empty-hearted message of “woe is me, I’m getting old,” which rings hollow. Bowie is too content and too rich nowadays (he’s worth millions after putting his catalog up on the stock exchange).

The only good material on hours… comes after plodding through the first few tedious, opening numbers, including the “Quicksand”-like “Seven” (note the 12-string strumming that drives the song) with nary the existential angst of the original (“I’ve got seven days to live my life or seven ways to die” versus “Should I kiss the viper’s fang/Or herald loud the death man/I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought/And I ain’t got the power anymore”?).

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It isn’t until we get to the center of the album that we find some redemption, even if the atonement is superficial.  “What’s Really Happening?” was a result of a contest by Bowie to challenge a fan to write lyrics for him.  Alex Grant won and deservedly so. His “Grown inside a plastic box/Micro thoughts and safety locks” is more Bowie than Bowie. “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell,” finally brings some balls to the forefront, though it still falls short of the calmest number on Earthling.  It’s not only Bowie who sounds diluted in his performance. Guitarist Reeves Gabrels has also lost some punch, and, as co-writer for every song, he is as much to blame for the weak music on hours… as Bowie.

Calling hours… a mellow album would just be excusing it for being bland. Once again, Bowie falls prey to his self-consciousness, unintentionally diluting the power of his creativity by making a contrived attempt at this coming of age album. Come on, David, any real Bowie fan knows your immortal. Just give us  Bowie.

Hans Morgenstern

All images provided by Music On Vinyl, click to zoom in.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

TANGERINESFinalUSPosterA subtle film about brotherhood and tearing down the idea of “the enemy,” Tangerines (Mandariinid) is a beautifully shot meditation on what war means to soldiers on opposite sides when they are forced to take shelter together after being injured in battle. Even though it arrives in theaters rather late after its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign film, the cooled buzz about this film from Estonia should not deter those looking for quality cinema. As the hype wanes, what you are left with is a fantastic movie that should stand on its own as a quality work of deft storytelling resonant with humanistic concerns.

The film opens with a title card providing context to this war that one character calls “The Citrus War.” Events in the film take place in Georgia in 1992, not long after the fall of Soviet Russia. Many newly freed states saw conflict during this time. In this case, Estonian immigrants were forced out of Georgia during the ensuing conflicts between Georgians and Abkhazian separatists. Lembit Ulfsak plays Ivo, a carpenter from Estonia who has refused to leave his property in the lush Georgian countryside. He builds crates for his neighbor, tangerine farmer and fellow Estonian Margus (Elmo Nüganen). They are caught up in the timely harvest of the fruit with no one to help, as most Estonians have fled at this point in the conflict.

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When a skirmish suddenly breaks out on their front yards, Ivo takes in two wounded soldiers from opposite sides. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a mercenary for the separatists, vows to kill the Georgian soldier Niko (Misha Meskhi), as soon as both are well enough to step outside Ivo’s house — Ahmed does not want to dishonor their host by killing his enemy under Ivo’s roof. This allows the men to get to know one another, and despite conversations often turning to the rhetorical righteousness for either side, a humanizing effect occurs. Though Niko and Ahmed seem at odds over everything, they are also like two brothers that have gotten on one another’s nerves.

Writer/director Zaza Urushadze takes his time to allow the tension to turn while the men are inhibited from fighting, patiently deflating their tiresome conversation to levels of absurd, ill-informed rhetoric. Early on, we know the primary concern of the plot lies with the harvest of the crop and not the war. In a sly redefinition of military, Ivo and Margus have been promised help by other soldiers to pick the crop. This speaks to the importance of the land as more than territory but a space for life-sustaining nourishment. There are also many affectionate wide shots of the country’s lush landscape beautifully lensed by Rein Kotov. Against many of these images is the melancholic instrumental music by Niaz Diasamidze, a Georgian musician who specializes in the panduri and pulls incredibly somber melodies out of the bowed instrument.

Like the land and fruit, music also matters above the fight in Tangerines. After he’s well enough to sit at the table, Niko spends much of his time repairing a cassette tape that was damaged in the skirmish. The mystery of the music on it will not be revealed until the film’s finale. In one scene where Niko is working on the tape, Ivo has tuned his radio in on a station featuring a frantically plucked zither. Niko asks Ivo to change the music because it’s “driving him crazy.” As Ivo gets up, Ahmed says “but I’m listening to it.” And Ivo sits down.

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The relevance of music above the war is also wittily manifested by what isn’t translated from the radio. In this “war movie,” news of the war doesn’t matter as much as music. When Ivo and Ahmed turn on the radio, in two separate scenes, and tune it in to a news report, the subtitle only reads “War news on the radio.” Whether it was a creative decision by the director or not, it still serves to diminish the relevance of the war on this story. The specifics of what the radio announcer says about the war doesn’t matter as much as the music, be it the diegetic music that highlights the differences of the enemies or the extra-diegetic score by Diasamidze for setting the film’s somber mood.

But this is a violent setting, and indeed these men will be tested when war inevitably returns to their doorstep for a shocking finale that delivers the film’s message via a visceral confrontation. Urushadze never hints at his capability in staging the violent confrontation that closes this story of temporary peace during wartime. That he can add an impact to it via a humanizing character study speaks to the film’s use of violence in important narrative ways above exploitative entertainment value, but most of all, it offers a heart-breaking portrait of the dehumanizing randomness of war.

Hans Morgenstern

Tangerines runs 87 minutes, is in Estonian, Russian and Georgian with English subtitles and is not rated (expect wartime violence and cussing). It opened last Friday in our Miami area at the Tower Theater where it plays through Sunday and in nearby Broward County at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood where it plays through Thursday. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. All images are courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films, who also shared an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

MM-Main-PosterMad Max: Fury Road is a thrilling ride set in a post-apocalyptic world where the main ruler has centralized all resources. The new world is a top-down patriarchy where water, plants and even women and men are resources controlled and owned by a ruthless authoritarian version of Methuselah called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who has also propelled himself by conveying a myth of eternal existence to his followers. Indeed, the regime at the Citadel is a strange combination of religious fanaticism, top-down control, private ownership of natural resources, and a cult-like militarized core of supporters who are mostly male.

The population at the Citadel also embody extremes; Immortan Joe’s army and the main inhabitants of the Citadel are pale white mutant warriors who need blood transfusions to function and exist as devout cannon fodder for their ruler/father figure. They run the Citadel through violence and manage a host of slaves who seem to have been plucked from other territories. Among these characters, women seem relegated (surprise, surprise) either as nursing machines or as “breeders,” a group of beautiful young women, who function as Immortan Joe’s wives. Among the inhabitants of the Citadel, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) stands out; a fighter and leader in her own right, she has a mechanical arm and is entrusted by Immortan to collect fuel for the city though she longs to return to her mythical homeland.

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The main action of Mad Max: Fury Road is set in motion when Furiosa escapes and takes the five wives with her only to be soon found out by Immortan Joe. A chase ensues, involving the army from the Citadel that includes a host of vehicles souped up with skulls, spikes, chrome and real flames. The decadence of despot, Joe is acutely visible when one of the trucks in the caravan is solely dedicated to a group of drummers led by a punk/goth guitar player dressed in a skin-tight red outfit who rides at the front with a barrage of speakers at his back. The guns and violence launched at Furiosa are straight out of a nightmare world. Yet her steady resolution to find redemption and her hometown are enough to keep her going.

Furiosa also happens to have taken Joe’s wives with her, including a pregnant Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz) and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton). Max (Tom Hardy) ends up tied to the fate of the female group as he seeks to escape the Citadel where he has been turned into a highly coveted Type O negative human blood bag. He has even been named “Blood Bag” by Nux (Nicholas Hoult) a warrior from the Citadel who has strapped him to the front of his car as a human hood ornament, so he might join the pursuit in the middle of his transfusion. At first interested only in his own survival, Max, who enters the story struggling with his own existential demons as seen in violent flashbacks, comes to find that Furiosa’s journey is one he can subscribe to.

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The violence around and directed towards the six women is palpable, and although early in the film, their frailty seems to convince the audience that this chase will be over soon, their refusal to take part in the system that never worked for them gives them strength. These are complex female characters — not a small feat for an action film. For example, Splendid Angharad jumps out of the moving freight car as Immortan and his army close-in on them, in a display that surprises Max but that Furiosa seems to accept, as if she knew all along it was there.

The entire ride shows different forms of violence, from the visceral, directly aimed at the women as physical harm, to psychological control. The next point might be considered a spoiler, but it bares mentioning to speak to the intelligent quality of the film’s story. The caravan ends up meeting Furiosa’s ancestors, a group of women who used to thrive before Immortan’s rule. They provide an alternative view of the world for the women and in doing so set in motion the second half of the film, just as filled with action, only this time the group of women have turned around, facing their predators head-on. Via yet another profound plot-twist (and anyone telling you this film is just an extended chase and has no plot is not paying attention), the film makes a strong point that I have only heard from feminists before, the alternative view that fraternity and equality are far superior to patriarchy. In other words, feminism does not equate to man-hating, but it’s an alternative that can only be understood as a partnership. All this in the midst of fire, action sequences, and total vehicular mayhem.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the most recent iteration of the franchise from director George Miller, who previously directed Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The latest iteration shows his ease with the post-apocalyptic landscape and a deep understanding of presenting the high stakes in this world juxtaposed with high-paced entertainment. Although Miller has waited a long time to retake the franchise, one could say that he has perfected some of the elements of the post-apocalyptic world. The barren desert landscapes, the kinetically edited fast-moving shots that rely more on stunt work instead of digital effects — many presented in amazing widescreen, and his depiction of courage among the “wives” who are permanently in danger, are some of the many elements that will keep you from blinking for the two hours this movie runs.

Ana Morgenstern

Mad Max: Fury Road runs 120 minutes and is Rated R (it’s violent, for the most part). It opens everywhere in theaters on May 15. For theaters near you, enter your zip code here. For worldwide release dates click here. Warner Bros. invited us to a preview screening Tuesday night for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

cg_theatrical_ellyYou probably have not seen a mystery movie quite like About Elly. Much more than a whodunit, it’s an experience that involves the audience in a way few will expect. Screenwriter/director Asghar Farhadi plays with tone and perspective in a very subtle way. This is the movie that put the Iranian filmmaker on the map while travelling the international film festival circuit in 2009. A few years later, Farhadi went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign language film in 2012 for A Separation. Farhadi was even nominated that year outside the ghetto of foreign language cinema for screenwriting, an accomplishment in itself for a film in Persian.

His talents for writing are on strong display in About Elly, which only now is getting proper distribution in U.S. movie theaters. The film features a large ensemble cast who often rapidly talk over each other, yet distinct characters quickly stand out. The film never grows tiresome, even though the first third feels lighthearted before things suddenly shift into darker territory. The group includes three married couples, some with children, and a divorced man and a single woman. All have a long history together except for the single woman, the titular Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) is trying to play matchmaker between Elly — her child’s kindergarten teacher — and recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), so she has invited her to tag along on a weekend trip by the Caspian Sea.

The group has a long-standing relationship from their college days. Their casual teasing reveals a close kinship. Elly, however, is an outsider. 7There’s an uncomfortable air about her, and Sepideh works overtime to help her fit in, including a little deception about how long the group had planned to stay out there. What’s wrong with a little lie if it’s well-intended? It turns out a lot, and it’s the tangled web of lies that arise that will drive the story through one compelling twist in plotting after another.

Farhadi uses a light but unforgettable touch to reveal the film’s central drama after Elly disappears. He sets up the mystery of Elly’s disappearance by focusing his camera on her during an oddly ominous kite-flying scene. The idea of such an innocent act, a scene where Elly seems content and in the moment6, unconcerned of how to get out of this vacation or why she was brought here could portend something as ominous as her disappearance, which happens off screen, has incredible resonance. A labyrinthine set of lies, a vicious blame game and the inherent mystery of the stranger feed into an epic drama driven by revelations that only put that cast deeper in a grave of regrets they seem to be digging for themselves.

The film never heightens tension through snappy editing or even extra-diegetic music (the film features no score whatsoever). Farhadi also takes an incredibly natural approach. Conversations and dynamic reactions by characters feel straight out of a Robert Altman movie. The film also features strong performances throughout. Several actors perform through sudden pain, like a splinter in the hand and a twisted ankle, which heightens their urgency in raw, genuine ways. One can’t tell if these moments are staged or are spontaneous moments caught on camera. It’s yet another level of truth and lie to consider in a complex story of telling lies. About Elly ultimately makes you think about the lies people tell and their consequences. It’s an inspired mystery that unfolds in plain sight without any dramatic irony.

Hans Morgenstern

About Elly runs 119 minutes, is in Persian and German with English subtitles and is not rated (expect a few swear words and some stressful, suspenseful moments). It opened this past Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. For other screening dates as the film rolls out across the U.S., visit this link. The Gables Art Cinema provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are courtesy of Cinema Guild.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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