Waxing [Cinematically]: Love & Mercy


Love-and-mercy-movieLet’s start with a few simple facts on this one.

Love & Mercy is a music-focused biopic on Brian Wilson — member of the Beach Boys, producer, and noted recluse for much of the decades after creating some of the 1960s best pop music.

One of those creations was the 1966 album Pet Sounds.

Along with much of the music critics circle, I believe Pet Sounds is one of the best pop albums ever made. Maybe the best.

Love & Mercy shows much of the creation of Pet Sounds — a theatrical re-telling of Wilson’s genius in creating that album and putting life into the recordings you can find on his work.

These variables lead to an equation that made it very unlikely I would not LOVE or HATE Love & Mercy. Fortunately, it was the former.

This is a great biopic — not necessarily to keeping true to Wilson’s story (I don’t know enough about that, other than that the director worked with Wilson and his wife (who plays prominently in the movie) and had their permissions to create it.

The movie split his story into two — the younger Wilson as he grows to fame and decides that his talents are best kept at home where he can work on producing music — a smart move for a budding recording genius. Paul Dano plays this part and plays it with the nervous energy and chaotic genius that Wilson must have had to create something like Pet Sounds.

The second is his later life, somewhat in the midst of, but mostly after, the years of psychotic breakdown. This Brian Wilson was played by John Cusack (who looked just a bit too John Cusack-like to always pull the role off….we couldn’t add weigh or do anything there??? C’maaan!)

I won’t go too deep into the plot. It’s a true story, so the plot is essentially Wilson’s wikipedia page here.

The movie hits the right keys when we see Dano orchestrate Pet Sounds — an audicious album of so many instruments and sounds that rock n’ roll had never had (this was before, and a big influence to, the later Sgt. Peppers).

Dano’s Wilson is set on making the greatest album ever made. He has the music in his head and just needs to get it out on paper, no matter how complex it is, how many hours he needs to spend in the studio etc…All of this too while facing disbelief from his team of other Beach Boys, none of who had been in this kind of “sound” before, a father wrapped up in emotionally abusing Brian, AND the introduction of drugs into the scene and his own mind.

Crazy thing is, he damn near succeeded in doing it.

And through Bill Pohland’s lens we see how it all came together.

The joy was really in the reproduction of this genius and the sound Brian Wilson created. In the span of a few months, this man wrote ‘God Only Knows’, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘Good Vibrations’. Those are three titans in the pantheon halls of rock/pop music — and good enough to hold against any four Beatles songs.

And that’s not going into the albums underrated hits (‘Here Today’, ‘I Know There’s An Answer’,’That’s Not Me’).

I’m losing the movie  a bit in this waxing here and I can tell but the musical element is just so damn strong. It’s what you take away from the movie and the great joy of seeing this displayed. Great albums don’t just arrive one day. They’re crafted, written, edited, re-recorded. There’s men, or in this case, a man, behind the construction. That man is baring his soul and crafting a ‘David’ in his own sense. As we see, this almost killed Brian Wilson (and some others almost did too). Luckily, we have his albums. And perhaps even more miraculously, we have him back.

Waxing [Literarily]: Travels with Charley {John Steinbeck}

There’s been much debate on the reality of what happened with John Steinbeck in 1960. His book, Travels with Charley in Search of America, details some (of his/not his) journeys through that year and came out shortly before the revered author won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The journeys published involves a trip around the country in a large van, with a dog that takes on a character of his own. The subsequent investigations have painted this as untrue. Journalists stake claim of its impossibility. The Steinbeck camp supposedly hasn’t exactly back it up as true, but won’t do anything to wound the reputation of one of American’s native scribes.

The question is: does it matter? For journalists and literary historians, it does. For readers, it does not. Unless you decide to take Steinbeck’s words as gospel for the land — a point he himself refutes, resists, and rustles with during the entirety of the book. For the reader that pays attention, this becomes evident and the “truth” no longer matters. It, like all of its ilk before it, is a story.

Of course, it’s a certain type of story — it’s a travel story. And with many of the travel stories of our days, it reads as more of a collection of essays comprising a story, than a story from someone like Steinbeck’s production. By the end, it’s not the story (man rides around the nation) that matters, than the conclusions it reaches or questions it proposes.

The story’s plot is simple. Steinbeck puts himself in a van and journeys America — a country he so often is billed as representing. But for all of his truth in fiction, so he claims, what is the real truth that lay undiscovered? Trips through the Northeast, the Great Plains, Montana (he loves Montana), and down the West Coast are meant to bring that. Each larger area gets a chapter — each chapter filled with a character or three meant to represent that area in some, sometimes totally stereotypical sometimes atypical, way.

The story is nice, if not overdone. The real strengths of Travels is in its witticisms — which is to be expected from Steinbeck. At varying times, Steinbeck, elder in age and wise in experience, leaves bits of wonder along his journey, found or already known. These are the jewels of the book, and perhaps the jewels of journeying at large. It’s a short collection of gains that make up a wholly intangible growth.

Some examples he leaves you with:

We value virtue but we do not discuss is.

It’s bad to have one’s myth shaken up like that

It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have a design or the human mind rejects it. But in addition it must have purpose or the human conscience shies away from it.

You get the picture. Steinbeck drops these in his book like you’d find truck stops punctuating the highway on the long stretches in the middle of the country. They’re his resting thoughts, the truths that stay in the wind somewhere even as your van passes by.

For a travel book, particularly one of such a long drive, Travels is short. It reads quickly and can feel like a shifting dream (assuming that others dream of spending time with Mr. Steinbeck like this author). It’s not the kind of deep, penetrating book that he has elsewhere in his oeuvre, but it’s a fun romp that filled the author with substance in his elder years. And it wasn’t the substance of fictional characters in fictional places. Or perhaps it was. And perhaps it never mattered. Substance is not reserved for the living and it’s not reserved for one fixed place. If you go searching for it, you’re bound to find it, like America, it just comes in bits and pieces, littered in  small towns and big cities.

Waxing [Cinematically]: The Ending of ‘Short Term 12’

I saw Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 three months ago. It hasn’t left my mind since. It’s a movie that sticks with you — thanks to a brilliant cast, great pace, and most of all, a focus on storytelling.

That’s no more evident than in the movie’s final scene. You can find that scene here — and it has the rare distinction of not being a spoiler for the movie at all really. In fact, it’s a bit of a departure from the movie’s main plot lines, yet still embeds itself (rather deeply) in the film’s themes and purposes.

It’s an astoundingly powerful scene of storytelling. It can stand alone, really, which is all the more of an amazing feat for a movie’s final scene. Yet, you can feel the familiarity in it — both with the characters themselves and then with those characters and the subject matter of the story. This is evident when one person asks, “Marcus drinks cappuccino?” and you understand that there are preconceptions being broken here.

John Gallagher Jr. does a brilliant job moving through this story. He nearly chokes up at the end, which is the perfect cap to this story and the perfect mirror to Brie Larson’s character’s reaction. What they must have felt during the actual event of this story come back in this retelling and we bear witness to this first-hand, but belated account. And we can still see how important it is & was to these characters.

As for Larson, this was a role that she OWNED. It was one of the best lead performances I’ve seen this year and she handled the depth and vulnerability so perfectly. She truly captured the mess that comes when your life is surrounded by fucked-upness and you have dedicated yourself to helping others move past that. It’s tricky, and complicated, and to stay positive you need a few wins which is what we see from her in this scene, in its most subtle glory.

Check her out at 1:54 and then again at 2:14. This is the most important 20 seconds of the film, both for it at large and for her character. And she doesn’t even speak. Instead we get a few close ups of her and we can read into her about just the true power of this story and its meaning. So brilliantly acted, we see that this is what it all comes back to. Marcus at the coffee shop. Her work, her soul, her tears, it’s this. This is the win. This is the beauty of her surviving past her own shit to help others get through theirs.

It’s as powerful of non-verbal acting as I’ve seen. And it closes down a movie full of this kind of beauty, acting, and storytelling.

(SPOILERS, wanna see Marcus in action? Check this scene out for one of the movie’s most powerful scenes)

Waxing [cinematically]: The One I Love

The billing sold me first. Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss.

And then I read it was really only those two. Ted Danson is in there. For, what, a minute? Two?

So we have two favorites. 90 minutes. With just them.

And what a ride it was. It’s not just them two, it’s them two times two. That’s the trick. The trailer won’t tell you that and (SPOILERS) that’s what the movie hinges on. Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie (Moss) meet each other’s nearly-Platonic form in a guest house that plays as an alternate world (and as the movie tongue-in-cheeks itself “some weird version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”).

The two actors (playing themselves and then their other “forms”) are really in sync here. You can see them play both sides of the coin — coy and new love, and disrupted, stretched-out romance. In this, we see how easily these sides are divisible from each other in life, through the lenses of these characters. They can be happy together, it would just take some kind of drastic change on their parts (and, then, even, who gets the person they want to be with? Who doesn’t?)

There’s a lot of compelling reasons to see this movie. It’s unique. It’s well acted. It’s got lessons on love, relationships, and, I think, most of all, communication.

That’s what really struck me here. Both characters knew something strange was happening, and there’s some base level communication about what’s happening there. But after that? Nothing.

The Ethan and Sophie that are on rocky terms do almost nothing to describe to each other how the other acted in the guest house. Sophie has a chance and, in what becomes a terse moment for any onlooker, kind of lets it go. My guess is that her character doesn’t think she owes Ethan anything (and for good reason).

Communication is so disruptive in its absence here. Both characters choose to stay silent (Sophie more than Ethan) and turn the widening gyre of their reality into what’s happening in the guest house. Without communication, and with this distance expanding, Ethan panics and loses his cool. And, yet, still, NO communication. He can’t even explain to Sophie why he’s upset. He can’t bring himself to that vulnerable of a place (which is necessary). It’s not in his character, and a wall of history stands between that.

Not all couples are built to last, one supposes. But there was something, some golden bowl you saw once. What was that? And what if that came back? The movie asks these questions and more.

Worth the watch.

Waxing [cinematically]: Boyhood

It’s been five full days since I saw Richard Linklater’s new movie ‘Boyhood’. I’ve thought about it multiple times in each of those days since.

In writing this, I’m almost more consumed by my thoughts of the last week than the movie itself. The truth is, the move is so beautifully presented, so swift in its movement in a young boy’s growth, that you forget some of the earlier scenes. In a coming-of-age story, everything replaces itself. There isn’t a current state of affairs you can harken back to.

It reminded me, somewhat, of reading Garp, and trying to remember those first few chapters where you got to know this new person. What was he like back then? Could we have seen things coming that happened later?

Boyhood wasn’t so literary and it wasn’t as long as a true novel. Instead, Linklater employed a pastiche-ing strategy, at least at the start. Twelve (12) clips of 10-15 minutes, comprising a boy’s formative years. Comes together to make a movie.

He didn’t ultimately go with that. Some years are more dynamic than others. The mother’s (Patricia Arquette) story needed its time to breathe. The father (Ethan Hawke) drew watchers in too and required time. We saw him become exactly the type of guy that his first love wanted — and it was so fulfilling see that self-actualization actually make it into the film (in one of the final scenes).

It turns out, the pastiching was more than just the formatting of the movie. And I can’t say that without thinking of the ‘Before’ trilogy. In those, we had a twist of sorts — a bare-bones romantic engagement that the audience was invited into. And with that close-up intimacy, we’re allowed into an intimacy among the characters (Hawke and Julia Delpy).

Much the same, here, we see Linklater do something to the form=function equation which is really higher than mastery. It’s a special thing to see — and a special see to be a part of in the current.

In ‘Boyhood’, we see pastiching of moments come together to tell the story. And guess what the film itself stands on the laurels of — moments coming together to make up a whole. It’s an integral moment of the movie (you’ll know what I mean once you’ve seen it) and a true lesson that our characters learn. Not just Mason (played over 12 years by Ellar Coltrane), but his surrounding family as well.

Aside from that, as a viewer it was a welcome party to a journey of sorts. You can sense that over a dozen years these characters have grown together — professionally, personally, in regards to attachment of the story, etc… That was truly a joy.

Boyhood was the best reviewed movie I’ve seen. I knew it was a critic’s darling before I saw it. It’s hard to believe that it would live up to that hype. But it did. There aren’t holes worth tearing apart. It was shot beautifully, written sentimentally, and made whole by moments of acting prowess.

An absolute must see.

Waxing [Cinematically]: Dallas Buyers’ Club

I snuck in a watching of Dallas Buyers’ Club just hours before the 2014 Academy Awards and I’m glad I did. It was worth it to see what film carried both the years Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

After the watch, it was apparent that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both put in performances worthy of the industry’s highest awards. It was also apparent that the movie itself was nowhere near that mark.

I was happy to see the actors’ take home dual Oscars. My belief is that the film really only deserved a Best Picture nomination because of those two’s work.

Here’s a few reasons why

  1. Jennifer Garner certainly didn’t help any. She was unconvincing as a doctor. Unaware of a strange and wavering southern accent. And, worst of all, just unable to keep up with the strong acting happening around here. She nearly derailed some scenes with both actors, but the one on ones with McConaughey almost blew the raw intensity of his performance (mostly, his charm).
  2. The direction was incredibly sloppy. The movie dragged its feet in some places, while skipping forward to fast in others. Scenes simply existed that didn’t need to. An example: McConaughey’s character is, well, having some alone time with himself when he’s interfered with by some pictures that Leto’s character put up on the wall. McConaughey’s character at this point had started his progression toward a better understanding (his character’s personal growth and achievement), yet still he tore down the pictures, muttered a few curses and the scene cut. It was a scene that neither advanced the plot nor the characters, and we just simply don’t need those.
  3. There were just simply too many plotholes. One big one is that Ron keeps mentioning research he has and has been a part of, but the movie never really shows us this avenue. To contextualize, DBC is far, far more of an Erin Brokovich type vigiliante quest than a movie about equality (a la Milk for instance). This is incongruent with Woodruff’s move as a more enlightened man while the movie takes more on about bureaucratic threatening the FDA brings than the coming together of a society around an issue of life and death.

These movies exist everywhere and in fact are probably what makes great movies great movies. 12 Years A Slave both won Best Picture and had each of its main cast members nominated for their respective awards. DBC just simply wasn’t a movie that would stand without the performances of its two leading men.

It was worth watching. Leto’s performance in particular will be one I cannot shake from the radar of great acting and won’t be able to for years to come. The movie gave him the vehicle and that has to mean something, right?

Waxing [Cinematically] The Spectacular Now

Hollywood has gotten really, really good at retelling the same story. Going to see movies these days, I can’t help but shake the “I’ve seen this play out before” feeling, or predicting an ending, or being disappointed that a director/writer didn’t take a turn when they had an opportunity.

If there’s one thing to single out about The Spectacular Now, it would be its originality. The movie is a fresh dose of the non-cliche, which is all the more impressive as it drops you in the one the most cliche-laden scenes that movies love; high school.

The movie is based on a book, written by the guys who did 500 Days of Summer, and stars a new actor, Miles Teller, and an actress in Shailene Woodley that has now nailed two consecutive roles I’ve seen her in (her work in the Descendants demanded some serious attention). If these components were what brought the freshness, kudos to all involved.

Apparently, Michael Weber, one of the writers, described the film, and specifically the main character, Sutter, as “Ferris Bueller [who] gives bad advice”. That makes a lot of sense — only his advice isn’t all that bad. In fact, some of it is gold, particularly once he’s learned his lesson, it just takes him a while to get there. And, well, he’s drunk in every other scene.

If there were another thing to single out about The Spectacular Now it would be the gratuitous drunk driving scenes. It’s almost appalling, but it’s used to illustrate his character, and so you put it at ease. Still, once he involves Amy, the love interest, you start ot tense up a bit in the movie theater. You’ve seen this go down. Except he doesn’t get into an accident (well not really), and he doesn’t ruin his life drunk driving, he actually kind of gets away with it. Another turn away from cliche.

Sutter is a smart kid. He sees a serious truth in a lot of those people around him. He even sees it in himself but has some fear (one would assume of some abandonment) that prevents him from approaching his own growth. His dad left when he was young, and so we get a boy that doesn’t want to leave anything. Not his school, not his party life, not his ex-girlfriend, not his job, etc… It’s sad, but you can feel the truth in it.

And Woodley’s Amy, well gosh talk about a perfect portrayal of how pathetic we can be in our first love. She is obsessed with Sutter. Ignores his faults, loves him immediately and wants to change her life in any way that would please him. That’s first love. That’s what it’ll do to you.

Because it took pains to avoid cliche, it came off as raw as anything you’ll see these days — particularly from a pair of young actors. It tugged at the heart, though I have to admit I was expected a bit more of a tug (I blame it on the fucking excellent trailer). If it had a fault it was in some of the other actors around Teller and Woodley, or maybe even that the movie wasn’t that long (high school drama can feel like forever, they could’ve played with that) — but neither was 500 days….

Trying to be objective, I give it a 8.6. I’ll see it again. I’ll show some people. It didn’t bring on those wounds that some movies can, but it’s the closest one to come to that in a while.