Skip to main content

Maybe I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!

Love & Mercy
(2014)

Well here’s a surprise: a decent biopic. Probably because Love & Mercy isn’t slavishly fuelled by a sense of its own importance, and because it stresses the emotional life rather than the itemised history of its protagonist. Who is Brian Wilson, in his 20s and 40s, portrayed by Paul Dano and John Cusack respectively. Which was even more of a surprise, as I didn’t spend the duration possessed with the urge to thump Dano, who generally is just that kind of performer (and, I’m not a violent man, Mr Fawlty).


So the skill of Bill Pohlad (more usually a producer; this is his sophomore directing gig) is not to be underestimated in inducing me to empathise with Dano-Brian. He also pulls of the trick, with writers Oren Moverman (credited with cracking the story, he was in line to direct until realising Pohlad had such a clear vision, persuading him to step up to the megaphone) and Michael A Lerner, of making me invested in the genius of Wilson. Not that I don’t recognise the genius of specific Beach Boys songs, but I’ve never had the urge to sit down and listen to an entire album; for me, they just don’t hold that kind of allure.


The gradual disintegration of Dano-Brian, striving for ever-purer creative expression in the face of doubts about performing, reluctance on his fellow band members’ parts to go with his outré fare (Jake Abel’s Mike Love being most vocal), and a father from whom he seeks acknowledgement from but who is simultaneously entirely poisonous (Bill Camp, brazenly unsympathetic), while consuming substances that aren’t exactly helping his fragile psyche, makes for a compelling compendium signalling imminent mental collapse, particularly when spliced by the fractured time frames, as we shunt back and forth over two decades. For once, Dano’s naturally wan, insipidly-minded demeanour meshes with a sympathetic character, and alchemy ensues.


Cusack-Brian is, in contrast, solid rather than spectacular. Ironic, as I always rather rated Cusack, at least until he hooked up with Nic Cage and Val Kilmer’s tax adviser and started making any shit, anytime, anywhere. I shouldn’t be surprised that the performance is merely competent, as Cusack has never been exactly an immersive actor; he is very much always himself playing his subject. So, while we perceive Wilson’s distant, little boy lost, he never disappears into the role. This actually doesn’t matter too much, because while the ‘60s passages are very much about Brian being centre stage, his passivity in the later phase requires someone else to take the lead: Elizabeth Banks as romantic partner and saviour Melinda Ledbetter.


Melinda locks horns with Brian’s suffocating, vainglorious “Dr” Eugene Landy, a classic case of the psycho prescribing psychotics, in a typically excessive, loathsome, two-dimensional, bug-eyed turn from Paul Giamatti. Which is to say, he’s very good, but I suspect I’m suffering a wee bit of Giamatti fatigue. I see him everywhere, walking around like normal people, in everything. The ‘80s sequence is more traditional in structure perhaps, providing as it does the essential catharsis, but this also makes it a hands-down winner purely in emotional stakes.
          
                                 
It would have been easy for Pohlad to get carried away with the ‘60s nostalgia and namedropping (“Paul McCartney said God only knows is the best song ever written”), but rather than obvious recreations, the best moments find Brian striking sparks off his session musicians (“Well, if you repeat a mistake every four bars, it’s not a mistake anymore”) and one of them comparing him to other greats they’ve worked with (“Phil’s got nothing on you” of Spector). That said, Wes Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman does a standout job evoking the era and its colours, man, its colours.


Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Love & Mercy is that it doesn’t need to be about Brian Wilson for it to work. It fosters enough empathic sustenance that the simple message “You need to find a way to get back to yourself” would hold true even if the lead character had been a nobody. Maybe that’s the key to a good biopic; get to the heart of the individual, and the rest will follow.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…

This is bad. Bad for movie stars everywhere.

Trailers Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers’ broader comedies tend to get a mixed response from critics, who prefer their blacker, more caustic affairs (A Serious Man, Barton Fink, Inside Llewyn Davis). Probably only Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? have been unreservedly clutched to bosoms, so it remains to be seen how Hail, Caesar! fares. The trailer shows it off as big, bold, goofy, shamelessly cheerful and – something that always goes down well with awards ceremonies – down with taking affectionate swipes at Tinseltown. Seeing as how the unabashedly cartoonish The Grand Budapest Hotel swung a host of Oscar nominations (and a couple of wins), I wouldn’t put anything out of the question. Also, as O Brother proved, punctuation marks in titles are a guarantee of acclaim.

I’m an easy sell for Coens fare, though. Burn After Reading is very funny, particularly John Malkovich’s endlessly expressive swearing. Intolerable Cruelty makes me laugh a lot, particularly Clooney’s double t…

Thank you for your co-operation.

Robocop (1987)
Robocop is one of a select group of action movies I watched far too many times during my teenage years. One can over-indulge in the good things, and pallor can be lost through over-familiarity. It’s certainly the case that Paul Verhoeven’s US breakthrough wears its limited resources on its battered metal-plated chest and, in its “Director’s Cut” form at least, occasionally over-indulges his enthusiastic lack of restraint. Yet its shortcomings are minor ones. It remains stylistically impressive and thematically as a sharp as a whistle. This year’s remake may have megabucks and slickness on its side but there is no vision, either in the writing or direction. The lack of focus kills any chance of longevity. Verhoeven knows exactly the film he’s making, moulded to fit his idiosyncratic foibles. It might not be his best executed, but in terms of substance, as he recognises, it is assuredly his best US movie. Alas, given the way he’s been unceremoniously ditched by Hollywood, i…