REVIEW: “Love & Mercy”

love poster

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.


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.


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.


4 Stars

REVIEW: “San Andreas”


It looks like this is the big one – earthquake that is. You know, the massive ‘mother of all earthquakes’ that leaves epic-scaled devastation which is prime fodder for a summer popcorn audiences. And trust me, “San Andreas” has the summer popcorn movie cred. It is loud, often silly, filled to the rim with corny lines and CGI destruction, and it stars The Rock. Yet at the same time it also manages to entertain – an accomplishment that many summer blockbusters can’t claim.

Disaster movies have always managed to find an audience and if you look at the catalog of film history you’ll see that almost every disaster imaginable is represented. Earthquakes are no different. Quake disaster picks have been around for a while as evident by the great Clark Gable film “San Francisco” from 1936 and Charlton Heston’s “Earthquake” from 1974. “San Andreas” certainly doesn’t fall into the same category of those films in terms of quality, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I had fun with it.



The movie starts in typical fashion – with an introduction to the players. Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, A helicopter rescue pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department. He is in the middle of a divorce with Emma (Carla Gugino) who has moved in with her wealthy real estate broker boyfriend (Ioan Gruffud). Their daughter Blake (Alexandria Daddario) is seemingly caught in middle and maintains a strong relationship with her father. Meanwhile seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and his team are studying small tremors in hopes of perfecting their earthquake prediction theories. And we are also introduced to a young engineer named Ben (Hugo Johnston-Burt) who has eyes for Blake and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson).

I don’t need to tell you but an earthquake hits and the epicenter is near the Hoover Dam. But little does everyone know that it is simply a precursor to a bigger quake – one unlike any we’ve seen before (how’s that for dramatic effect). It just so happens that when ‘the big one’ hits the central family is separated and Ray sets out to save his estranged wife and daughter. The story bounces back and forth between each group of characters as they navigate an assortment of perils and close calls.

The city of San Francisco is the computer generated ground zero of “San Andreas” and the special effects crew leaves no street undamaged and no landmark unscathed. This reveals some of the film’s strengths and its weaknesses. Visually the film shines. Watching this there is no question that modern special effects are capable of capturing almost anything. Even the film’s more ridiculous and absurd sequences were impressive due to the spectacular visuals. On the other hand the barrage of CGI destruction is relentless to the point of becoming almost numbing. And there are times when you question whether the filmmakers are even considering the catastrophic death toll resulting from their visual artistry.


But my biggest mixed reaction centers around the characters. Unquestionably the movie features several throwaway characters and some prototypical cookie-cutter characters that you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. I won’t spoil who is who, but the sheer lack of imagination in some of the character development is ridiculous. On the more surprising side, I actually found myself liking the family dynamic as cliché as it was. Even amid the sometimes lame dialogue and laughably cheesy lines I liked the three main characters. And the performances were generally good. They are nothing that you will  remember but they’re able to weather the occasional hackneyed writing that can sometimes leave you shaking your head. It’s a pretty solid cast some of whom feel a bit wasted.

When watching movies like “San Andreas” I feel you sometimes need to have a discernment switch you can flip off in order to enjoy the movie. It’s that critical switch that when flipped on keeps us from seeing past a film’s negatives so that we enjoy the positives. Many summer blockbusters stink regardless of whether the switch is flipped on or off. But I found “San Andreas” to be entertaining in its own cheesy, summer blockbustery way. The predictability is undeniable. The corny lines are too many to count. The CGI devastation and last second rescues are aplenty. But at the same time “San Andreas” kept me engaged thanks to its visuals, its cast, and even the occasional unintended humor which I count as part of its charm. I can see where some may pile on or dismiss “San Andreas”, but for me it was good throw-away summer fun.


3.5 stars