Friday, July 10, 2015

Film Review - Love & Mercy

Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy is the best movie of the year so far, a caring and understanding film about mental illness, the best musician biopic since Todd Haynes’s I'm Not There (not coincidentally, Oren Moverman co-wrote both that film and Love & Mercy), and an incredibly comforting film, with the best performances and music I’ve seen and heard this year. It has moments of such stunning power that I felt compelled to see it again, as I often do with movies I love, and examine why it’s so effective and moving.

Paul Dano and John Cusack brilliantly portray Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys at two very different points in his life – Dano during the creation of the masterful album Pet Sounds in the 1960s, and Cusack in the 1980s, when Wilson was in terrible mental health and under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy misdiagnoses Brian as a paranoid schizophrenic, and keeps him estranged from his family for years. When Brian meets his future wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) while buying a car from her dealership, he finds not only a soul mate empathetic to his mental illness, but someone willing to fight against the tyrannical Landy to help Brian find his way back to himself.

Jumping back and forth between time periods, the movie gives us one remarkable sequence after another, all of which feel organic and thematically connected (and not simply like a greatest-hits of major events from a person’s life, a problem in many biopics.) Just as The Beach Boys seem to be bridging apart while creating Pet Sounds, we get a perfect recreation of the music video for Sloop John B, and the power of this recreation comes not just from the beauty of the song, but from seeing the brothers as comrades – goofy, fun-loving and joyous, playing around in their backyard swimming pool.

It’s the same pool where, in another magnificent scene, while the band tries to have a business meeting, Brian barely hangs onto a raft in the deep end. His only request is that they whisper and join him on the other side of the pool, and it’s heartbreaking to watch as the meeting goes on, with Brian seemingly oblivious to the larger implications of the band’s decisions as he tries to stay afloat on his end of the pool.

Director Bill Pohlad has only directed one other film, but his directorial choices in this movie are so strong, you’d think he was one of our most seasoned filmmakers. Pohlad produced Brokeback Mountain (2005), Into the Wild (2007), The Tree of Life (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), and perhaps working with such excellent filmmakers has enabled him to make a film every bit the equal of those other masterful titles.

I think of the many strong editorial and camera choices made throughout the film. In an early date between Brian and Melinda, there’s a long take where Brian describes his childhood, and the camera stays on Melinda. We catch glimpses of Brian’s face from the reflection at the back of the booth, but mostly, we’re watching Melinda slowly fall in love with him.

There’s a slow 360-shot later in the film that simply seems to take in the life and creativity flowing among the sessions band and Brian in the recording studio. Or what about the sequence near the end, in which Dano's Brian and Cusack’s Brian seem to merge when he confines himself to his bed at the height of his depression, and sees visions of characters from his past and present, beautifully set to In My Room?

Both Cusack and Dano’s performances feel free, alive and not even remotely constricted to playing to an audience’s pre-conceived idea of Brian Wilson, whatever that might be. They each create a memorable and unique character completely separate from the real-life Wilson, and that’s really what makes the character feel real (and, as I’m Not There so terrifically proved, casting more than one actor in a role like this only adds to our complex understanding of the person.)

So many films about geniuses – whether famous musicians or physicists (ahem, The Theory of Everything) – are simply content to show the genius completing an equation or being smarter than everyone else in the room, without bothering to actually explain what it is they do, or, even harder, help us understand how they’re doing it.

Here is a film that attempts to actually understand how a genius works, in large part through its rich use of sound and score (Atticus Ross uses elements of many of Wilson’s songs in his score, but breaks them down into their separate parts.) Because many of the individual sounds and notes seem distantly familiar to us (through knowing the music of The Beach Boys), we’re able to understand how Brian can isolate different elements in his head and try to piece them together as a new song.

The film is such an aural experience, which is made clear by the early shot that slowly pulls out of Brian’s eardrum. It’s as much a movie to listen to as it is to watch – attuned to the sounds and noises Brian experiences in his everyday life.

With the music, you can feel Brian reaching for something greater. Is it God? You can feel it in the songs, which are transcendent, as if Wilson made a connection through to another world of indescribable emotions and sensations. Listening to the sounds in his head becomes its own journey of discovering the notes of songs you’ve always known, which feel bigger than all of us – like music that’s always been there, it’s just been waiting for a human to piece it together.

The look of the film is extraordinary. As filmed by Robert Yeoman (who shot all of Wes Anderson's pictures), the warm palettes of the 1960s, with Brian surrounded by his family (whatever disagreements there may be among them), contrast beautifully with the later sequences, which largely take place in white, sterile spaces to which Landy has confined Brian. It’s only the presence of Melinda that gives us hope. Even in its more intense moments, though, there is a calming and comforting quality to Love & Mercy, perhaps because we view the world through such a kind and gentle man, whose only aim seems to be to make the sounds in his head make sense. May we all be granted such love and mercy.

Sitting in the Alamo Drafthouse cinema on South Lamar and experiencing Love & Mercy for the second time, I was overcome with an emotion that I only experience during the perfect match of film and movie experience (a perfect movie experience, by the way, constitutes a quiet, attentive theater in the grasp of a good story.) But I also felt this particular movie in a way I rarely do anymore – certainly not in New York cinemas, where the loudest people reign supreme. Love & Mercy is so gentle and powerful, that I was already sad for the day when my enthusiasm for the movie will wane and my energy will be directed toward another picture. As I watched it, I could not shake the feeling of how fresh and powerful the film seemed to me now – just as Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and Boyhood (2014) were films I felt deeply during earlier months of my life. And though I adore both of those movies, they have now retreated into my long list of favorite films – I will return to them again, certainly, but the period of my life that they defined is now over.

Oh, but to be there and experience a picture in that new way upon its first release. I don’t want Love & Mercy to ever be “the film from last summer.” It is how I feel now, and I find myself wanting to retreat back to that quiet cinema on that peaceful summer day. I’m not ready to move on to another feeling, because it won’t be the same as that film and that cinema on that day. That’s how it feels, at least. Perhaps it’s my nostalgia for Austin kicking in. More than likely, though, it’s just the perfect combination of cinema experience and motion picture, which we so rarely get. I suppose rather than being wistful, I should be thankful – for films as good as this, and for audiences out there willing to shut out the noise and listen.

For the past few months, I've started doing video reviews for Austin Family (for whom I've been writing a film column since 2004) - here are the three inaugural reviews, of Love & Mercy, Inside Out, Aloha and Avengers: Age of Ultron

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