REVIEW: “Love & Mercy”

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It was 1961 in the Southern California city of Hawthorne. Three brothers, a cousin, and a high school friend formed a group that would grow into one of the biggest American  bands in music history. They called themselves The Beach Boys, a reference to their harmonious “California Sound”. They would go on to sell over 100 million records and have 36 Top 40 hits. The creative center of the group was Brian Wilson.

“Love & Mercy” is a dual narrative biographical drama about the life of Brian Wilson. The film hops back and forth between two specific timelines. One takes place in the 60s and follows a young Brian during the band’s heyday. The second takes us to the 80s where Brian’s life is dictated by opportunistic handlers and heavy medications.

There are two important creative decisions that help distinguish this from other films of its type. First, director Bill Pohlad keeps his focus strictly on these two periods of Wilson’s life. It’s a wise move that distances the film from more conventional structures. The periods don’t always feel connected and there are times where the leaps from one period to the other are a bit clunky. Still I appreciated the nuanced approach and they both helped tell a compelling and personal story.

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Second, “Love & Mercy” is a very inward-looking biopic. It is much more interested in showing the inner brilliance of Brian Wilson on a creative level as well as the mental and emotional turmoil that sends his life careening out of control. We spend a lot of time inside his head surrounded by voices and swirls of sound. We also spend a lot of time examining the aftermath. This is all calculated and much more interesting than I was expecting.

Paul Dano plays Brian Wilson from the 60s. Dano is an actor who can play certain roles well, but they have to be very specific to his narrow talents. This happens to be one of those roles. Dano stares into space, makes weird faces, and relays a general awkwardness – all things that he can do very well. But I don’t want to sell him short. He is very in tune with his character and with Pohlad’s vision. I like Dano a lot here. It’s a very human portrayal. But he also keenly shows us Wilson’s creative drive. He does all of this through a cleverly understated performance.

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Dano takes us through Wilson’s struggle with the pressures of being in a hugely popular band. The stresses, the panic attacks, and eventually the drugs. John Cusak plays Wilson in the 1980s, a shell of a man mentally damaged by his past but also by a leech of a psychotherapist and guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Cusak is given a much different role than Dano and he too succeeds in showing us another phase of this complicated life.

At this point Wilson is a man on a leash with literally no life to call his own. That changes when he meets a goodhearted car saleswoman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). She catches glimpses of the real Brian buried inside by Landy’s mental oppression. She likes what she sees and she is willing to fight the sleazeball Landy. Banks does a really good job drawing personality out of Wilson. It is through their relationship that we see this Brian Wilson as more than a heavily sedated zombie. And Giamatti, well he is always fantastic at playing a scumbag.

As I’ve pointed out there are so many things “Love & Mercy” does well. There are some small bumps, but ultimately the biggest reason it succeeds is because it operates in human terms. It doesn’t bog itself down by adhering to the common mainstream biopic formula. Instead it shows us what made this creative genius tick. Do we ever truly understand where that drive and inspiration came from? Not exactly, other than it came from the same dark place that eventually broke him. This is compelling stuff. It is a story worth telling and “Love & Mercy” tells it really well.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

“Ruby Sparks” – 4 STARS

ruby sparks posterThere are some movies that you know you have no interest in seeing from the first moment you hear of them. Whether you’re repelled by the story, the director, or someone in the cast, certain films can instantly turn you off. That was my initial reaction to “Ruby Sparks”. Since I’m an official Paul Dano hater, “Ruby Sparks” was immediately thrown into my ‘do not watch’ bin. But you know there are also movies that completely catch you off guard. Despite your lack of interest or minuscule expectations, some movies come out of the blue and totally surprise you. That was my reaction after finally seeing “Ruby Sparks”.

I really hadn’t given this film much consideration at all. But after reading a few recent positive reviews and desperately needing a movie for my Netflix queue, I decided to give “Ruby Sparks” a look. I’m glad I did. This is a smart and fresh romantic comedy that looks at control issues, insecurities, and the failures of people to look inward when it comes to solving a relationship problem. The film takes its unique idea and makes it work thanks to a superb script, nice direction, and yes, even a good performance from Paul Dano.

Zoe Kazan wrote and stars in this film about a struggling writer named Calvin (played by Kazan’s real life boyfriend Dano). Calvin captured lightning in a bottle at age 19 with a best selling novel that took the country by storm. But since that time he’s been unable to latch onto a good idea for a follow up. Calvin also has a poor track record when it comes to relationships. He spends the majority of his time alone with his dog Scotty dwelling on a long past breakup with a girl named Lila. Calvin’s jerky but caring brother Harry (Chris Messina) tries to help him with his depression and his therapist Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) gives him various writing assignments to try and provide him with the emotional and career push he needs.

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Then something miraculous happens. Calvin has a dream where he has a lovely encounter with a girl in a park. He wakes up and immediately feels inspired to write about her. Day and night he enthusiastically writes about Ruby Sparks and falls for her more with each word he types. Then one morning Calvin is astonished to find Ruby (Kazan) in his house – a living, breathing embodiment of all he’s written. This provides several obvious complications for Calvin but it also offers some interesting possibilities for him. Could this be the one chance for him to have the girl of his dreams (yes, I actually went there)?

I don’t want to go much further into the story at risk of giving too much away. Lets just say the movie makes Calvin face a number of relationship questions and moral quandaries. With a few punches on his typewriter he’s able to change or adjust Ruby in any way he sees fit. But is that love? Is that what relationships are all about? Are our fantasies good measuring sticks for companionship? You’ll find these types of questions cleverly nestled between some good subtle humor and a touch of romance. I really responded to it and that’s mainly due to Kazan’s slick, intelligent script. This was her screenwriting debut and she shows an amazing knack for telling a good story while bucking conventional methods. The directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris keep Kazan’s story moving with energy and fluidity. At least most of the time. The film does hit a lull at the midway point but the directors quickly change directions which gets things back on track, right up to the satisfying ending.

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It would be unfair for me to finish the review without talking about Paul Dano. He gives a really good performance here. Now I still stand by my assertion that he’s only good in certain and very specific roles. In fact, Kazan wrote this part with him in mind. But this is perfect for him and he nails it. Kazan is also very good in a small but tricky role. There is also good work from Messina and Gould as well as Annette Benning as Calvin’s free-spirited mother and Antonio Banderas as her peculiar boyfriend.

Let me sum this all up by saying “Ruby Sparks” was a pleasant surprise. I never expected to enjoy this movie nearly as much as I did. It may sputter in a spot or two and some of the characters may not feel as genuine as they should. But the acting is strong and the writing is fantastic. That was more than enough to bring this unique story alive for me. While Paul Dano still isn’t an instant box office draw for me, I believe that with the right material he can be good. And “Ruby Sparks” has me really excited to see what Kazan writes next. For me, she’s the one who shines the brightest from this film.

REVIEW: “Looper”


Time travel is one of those fun and intriguing concepts that has found its way into every movie genre. Obviously there is time travel in science fiction films, but it can also be found in the horror, action, drama, comedy, and even romance genres. So there’s an apparent attraction to the idea of time travel and its been explored in a variety of different ways. Therefore the real challenge for a filmmaker is to take this familiar subject and give us something new and fresh – something we haven’t seen before. I’m thrilled to say that’s exactly what writer and director Rian Johnson has done with his mind bending sci-fi action film “Looper”.

As you can guess, “Looper” takes place in the not-to-distant future. Time travel has been realized but by the year 2074 it has been outlawed. The crime syndicates illegally use time travel as a means of executing and disposing of targets, something that has grown increasingly difficult to do in their time. That’s where loopers come in. They are mob killers who execute the targets sent from the future, collect the silver bars sent with the target as their reward, and then dispose of the bodies – no mess and no connections to the mob. Loopers operate out of Kansas City in the year 2044 and are headed by a mobster named Abe (Jeff Daniels). In fact, we learn that Abe is essentially running the entire city.

Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of Abe’s most trusted loopers. He’s efficient and by-the-books. But soon Joe is faced with what’s called “closing the loop” – the syndicate’s version of retirement. You see, the looper will be sent the future version of the himself to be executed. No party or shiny plaque. Just a hefty payment in gold bars and a release from their contract. “Good-bye” and enjoy the next 30 years. As we hear in the movie, the looper job doesn’t attract the most forward thinking people. Joe is surprised and unprepared when his latest target turns out to be himself only 30-years older and bald (Bruce Willis). He makes the biggest mistake a looper can make – he hesitates and old Joe jumps him, knocks him out, and then escapes. Soon young Joe has the mob hot on his trail as he’s trying to “make things right” by catching up with and killing old Joe. But old Joe has a mission of his own which really turns everything on its head.

The first half of the movie focuses more on the loopers, on introducing us to Johnson’s world, and setting up Gordon-Levitt’s character. A huge part of any movie like this, especially when dealing with time travel, is creating a believability to what you’re presenting. In other words, we need to buy into what we’re being shown. The concept behind this Rian Johnson futuristic concoction is brilliant and a breath of fresh cinematic air. What’s even more impressive is how well it’s realized on screen. He doesn’t overdo his futuristic landscape so I never felt too disconnected from this world. But there is some cool technology and Johnson clearly has fun with some of it including his ugly green energy dependent cars and the bad cell phone reception. But the city itself is a dirty and unpleasant place filled with poverty and drug use – just what you would expect from a mob-led city.

The second half of the movie takes a slight change in direction. Much of it takes part on a farm outside of town owned by a single mother Sara (Emily Blunt who exchanges her English accent for a country girl one) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). Young Joe’s search for old Joe leads him to the farm where he hopes to find shelter from the syndicate and clues to what his older self is up to. But he quickly learns that there’s more to this farm family than meets the eye. These scenes add some authentic emotional punch to the film. But Johnson also uses this part of the movie to open up several new doors which add more and more layers to the already challenging story. Of course there were a couple of times where I had to stop and process what I had just seen, but I really liked these different directions and as a whole, the complex yet miraculously cohesive script is constructed with such intelligence and precision so that I never felt lost nor did I feel the material ever bogged down.

It’s also worth mentioning the spectacular visuals and no-holds-barred action sequences. It doesn’t take long to recognize Johnson’s skill with framing shots and moving his camera. He uses several unconventional techniques which give the move a unique look. We get several close-ups where Johnson wants the expressions of his characters to tell the story. He also often times places his camera at ground level giving us the feeling we are looking up at them. This is very effective particularly during the buildup to a couple of key action scenes. Speaking of the action, it is incredibly done. It’s a brutal and violent mix of sci-fi and 1980’s gun-blazing action and both work extremely well. Johnson doesn’t skimp on the blood but it feels right at home in this picture.

I also have to talk about the acting. The performances in “Looper” are solid throughout with some being Oscar caliber in my opinion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove that he’s a top Hollywood talent. Here he’s armed with heavy makeup, a prosthetic nose, and a Bruce Willis smirk. The funny thing is he channels Willis perfectly from his slouch to his expressions, all while giving a very different performance than Willis. And speaking of Willis, he is excellent here. What stood out was the range that he shows in this performance. For instance there are scenes where he’s a cranky codger, an emotional wreck, and laugh out loud funny. But there were also scenes that reminded me of John McClane from Die Hard – steadily yelling while his machine gun pumps loads of lead. Emily Blunt is fantastic as always, Jeff Daniels just eats up his lines, and Paul Dano plays the same measly, wormy character that he always plays. Then there is young Pierce Gagnon who is phenomenal. He’s such a tender presence but his performance goes well beyond that standard cute kid role. He’s given a lot to do and he really stands out.

I’m sure it’s obvious by now that I really liked “Looper”. But it’s not a perfect movie. While the story is intensely original and thoroughly engaging, there are a few plot holes as well as some pointless throw away scenes in the first half of the movie. For example early on we see young Joe has a relationship with a prostitute. He appears to be quite fond of her even though she’s only in a couple of scenes, one of which seems to be there strictly to add some pointless content to the film. This time could have been spent better elsewhere. I also couldn’t help but ask the question – what type of crime organization would actually hire Paul Dano’s character to be a looper? His performance is fine but I had a hard time believing in him. That said, he did provide us with one of the films very best sequences. I’ll just leave it at that.

I could go on and on about “Looper” but let me just sum it up by saying that it’s the most ambitious and imaginative movie I’ve seen all year. It’s smart and audacious and Rian Johnson actually pulls it all off. It’s completely unpredictable and no matter how hard you try, you never catch up with it. It’s always one step ahead of you. “Looper” takes the familiar device of time travel to new places through a brilliantly original concept. Johnson lays out that concept clearly for the audience. Then he takes it, shakes it, twists it, and contorts it and then challenges the audience to keep up. He dabbles in different genres and themes, examines societies, questions morality, and asks us to take it all in and process it. That’s something I’m happy to do especially when the movie is this good.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“MEEK’S CUTOFF” – 3 1/2 STARS

To call “Meek’s Cutoff” a unique film would be an understatement. It’s a historical western of sorts from director Kelly Reichardt that follows three families and their guide as they travel on the Oregon Trail. Reichardt certainly doesn’t romanticize the American frontier life instead creating one of the most genuine portrayals of the hardships and struggles that faced the settlers in the new territory. But while the movie draws you in with it’s visual beauty, nice performances, and high stakes, it ultimately falls victim to one of the most unsatisfying endings you’ll see.

The film takes place in 1845 as the Tetherow, Gately, and White families follow the lead of Stephen Meek, a shaggy and rugged mountain man hired to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. He claims to know a shortcut but as the trip grows longer and the water starts running out, the families begin to question Meek. After running across an Indian and uncertain of his motives, they capture him much to the dismay of Meek who would rather just kill him. Eventually they are faced with a dilemma. Do they continue to follow Meek who by all indications seems lost or do the follow the Indian who they can’t communicate with but hopes can lead them to some much needed water?

“Meek’s Cutoff” is an incredibly slow developing picture that is sure to turn off some people. It does require a good deal of patience but it wasn’t long until I was thoroughly involved in the story. Reichardt does an incredible job giving the story an authentic look and feel and you really feel as if you are right there with them. The cinematography is wonderful and there some truly beautiful shots in the film. There are also some solid performances particularly from Michelle Williams, Will Patton, and Paul Greenwood who completely loses himself in the Meek character.

“Meek’s Cutoff” flirts with greatness but ends up falling short mainly due to an ending that left me feeling frustrated and shortchanged. Now I have no problem with ambiguity, leaving things open for interpretation, or allowing the audience to come up with their own conclusions. But this ending is terribly abrupt and features nothing that would cause me to come to my own conclusion about anything. To be honest, it felt unfinished and I couldn’t help but feel letdown.

It’s tough to watch a picture that does so many things right but fails to finish. It’s easy to talk about what all Reichardt accomplishes in her film. It’s a brilliant and arresting movie that had me sold right up to the very end. This one glaring black eye took so much away from my experience with the film. I understand this was a creative decision and many people have been satisfied with it. But for me, not only did “Meek’s Cutoff” not offer any real conclusion, but it gave me nothing to build mine upon. It felt a little cheap and lazy and ultimately made a potentially great film just a good film.