Love and Mercy (2014: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks)

I figured I’d wait until this docudrama came out on a streaming service to see it, despite my general fondness for all things Brian Wilson. I found it hard to imaine that it could be either so brilliantly performed or so illuminating as to justify a need to see it in the short term. I was pretty much right on that front.

Pretty much every piece of purportedly nonfictional media about Brian Wilson’s life has had (if you excuse the reference, which whistles over the head of everyone who’s not obsessed with late-60s Beach Boys works) its Heroes and Villains. Exactly who falls into each category depends who happens to be spinning their agenda with this go-round of the blame wheel. There are enough people in his history who can be read ambiguously that it’s up in the air as to whether in any given story Mike Love is going to be the pragmatist trying fruitlessly to pull Brian out of the clouds or the philistine who is crushing his artistry; whether Eugene Landy is going to be the genius psychoanalyst who untangles Brian’s knot of neuroses or the unethical quack who isolates and bleeds his patients; whether Marilyn Wilson is a long-suffering and completely-out-of-her depth loyal spouse or an enabler for Brian’s worst habits; or whether Murray Wilson is a rage-fueled abusive monster or a rage-fueled abusive monster (nobody still living is actually on Murray’s side, so he always gets to be a villain).

In this particular (fictional but truthy) iteration of the Brian Wilson story, the central conflict is between the virtuous and determined Melinda Ledbetter and the nefarious and shifty Dr. Eugene Landy. One depressing thing about the Brian Wilson narrative is that, no matter how much people coo over Brian’s genius, he’s never a character with much agency in these retellings. Melinda falls for Brian, Landy snarls and rages and holds Brian prisoner, Melinda mobilizes an offscreen Carl Wilson to serve Landy with papers, Brian gets set free, roll credits. There’s not much there there, plotwise (it’s churlish to point out, in a work of fiction, that it’s also completely fabricated, inasmuch as Brian Wilson remained in Eugene Landy’s care for 6 years after meeting Melinda, for most of which the two weren’t in contact).

Intercut with the 1986 plot is a series of flashbacks, mostly the the Pet Sounds/SMiLE era of 1966, although there’s a brief montage of Brian-in-bed shots later to sum up the 70s with trippy Brian-at-different-ages visuals for exta mindscrew. In these scenes, Murray Wilson gets to carry a nice load of the burden of villainy, while Mike Love (a popular punching bag for SMiLE-era histories) is presented somewhat ambiguously.

THe film as a whole doesn’t go much of anywhere interesting. Hagiography for Melinda is a new look for the Brian Wilson bio, but it’s a new look on an old story, and the story itself is presented as a rote recitation of setpieces Brian Wilson fans would have encountered elsewhere. I’m reminded, actually, of how two the few scanty lyrics from “Barnyard” and “I’m in Great Shape” were in the 2004 SMiLE remake. No, they almost certainly weren’t lyrics planned for the final versions of those songs, but they were what the fans had heard and therefore had to be included. Likewise this film replays the greatest hits of the Brian Wilson story, most of them of obvious origin: both a dialogue Brian has with Melinda about his father’s physical abuse and the abortive mission to visit his house are taken near-verbatim from I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times; the SMiLE-era stuff is a montage of pianos in sandboxes, studio musicians in fire hats, and sessions of dogs barking, all skimmed form the most prominent elements of ’66 Brian Wilson lore. It’s not unexpected but its kind of disappointing, that this film had nothing to say, on either a large or a small scale, than had already been said several times before.


Lの本当の秘密/Death Note: L Change the WorLd

[Screenshot]Death Note is a hot property, and mostly deservedly so. What I’ve seen of the anime is clever and thrilling; I’m given to understand the manga is on a par with it. The first two live action movies (as reviewed here and here) were authentically enjoyable and mostly lived up to the promise of the preceding works.

This film, on the other hand, is a stupid pizza topped with extra stupid. It involves a competition among the various principals, all of whom are supposed to be fiendishly clever, as to who can behave in the most incongruously ridiculous way. We can start with the primary macguffin, a virus like Ebola, but far more infectious and more rapidly deadly. Incidentally, two things which keep Ebola from being much more dangerous than it is happen to be… its extreme infectiousness and short incubation time. It’s a horrific disease in a small area, but it tends to burn itself before becoming an epidemic.

The dumb things people do when fighting over this virus and its vaccine are mostly not worth mentioning, but two things stand out: first, a very important person ends up changing hands because, AFAICT, one side simply couldn’t be arsed to wonder where she is. Yes, L is supposed to be a bit spacey, but he’s also supposed to be smart. Second, and more damningly, the conclusion of the movie has ecoterrorists hijacking a plane to the US, with the intent of starting an epidemic there. They manage to accidentally infect themselves with the virus before the plane lifts off the ground.

A word of advice to terrorists: if you are infected with a virus which makes you bleed out your eyes and die in less than an hour, you might want to scratch the plan which involves a transcontinental plane flight. Perhaps, instead of flying to the fourth largest metropolitan area in the world, you will settle for the single largest one, which you’re already in?

Of course, one would think L, hearing of this plan, would breathe a sigh of relief as every single virus-carrier perishes in a plane crash, relieved to have foiled the plan at the price only of a single airliner full of innocents (this would arguably be in character). But instead we get a thoroughly uncharacteristic and risky action sequence which manages to save everybody.

This is, needless to say, a disappointing addition to the franchise. L’s mannerisms can’t carry a film, even in conjunction with Near’s equally odd quirks, and I miss the old days when Death Note-related media was intelligent.

(A note on contrasts: this review’s a lot shorter than the last review, also of a Japanese film but a classic. Writing about good film can be hard, because there’s especially if you don’t want to spoil the plot, one can only indulge in so much admiration. Tearing a bad or mediocre film a new one, OTOH, is always fun.)

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


[Screenshot]This is certainly a self-consciously arty film. Like many Japanese dramatic films, it brings to bear a fair number of stage dramatic conventions which I’m not deeply familiar with, so certain nuances of expression (and of course of language) might have been lost on me, but nonetheless it was impressively presented; it was very long but never felt like it was dragging, laying its story out in a way that left me anticipating its (rather gruesome) revelations and conclusion. It’s very much a period drama, but unlike the many (mostly Kurosawa) films of the feudal period, this one is set in the Edo period, with a strong consciousness of social change, evidenced both in the crumbling of the great houses which forms the primary dramatic backdrop for the story, and the technological change presaged by the appearance of firearms.

It’s a beautiful film, with stark cinematography and dramatic contrasts of shade in the set design; the most obvious criticism that can be leveled at it is that, like so many of its artistic peers, it runs quite long. The story is ultimately pretty slight, spun out in detail which although gorgeous occasionally gets a little narratively thin, and although it’s never dull it does tend towards a certain languidity, lingering on a particularly striking setting or bit of acting. But if you don’t mind a certain leisureliness of pcing, there is enough here that you won’t feel like your time’s been wasted.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


[Screenshot]I thought a movie about a sentient tire going around killing people was a pretty oddball premise, and one that had some promise. I got a rather stranger movie than I expected. I’m not even sure whether it’s supposed to be about the tire or the people watching the tire, and the central horror-element plot ends up as a sidelight to a strange but internally self-consistent set of rules governing observers and actors.

All in all, Rubber is one odd duck of a film. It is more than it might seem but also less than the sum of its parts, and the overall effect is of an intriguing experiment which is something of a stew of not-entirely-cohesive ideas. The whole is mostly clever, teetering on the edge of self-indulgence and only rarely falling on the wrong side, but whether it actually ends up “good” in spite of its flaws is a trickier question. Unmistakably it’s doing something different, and throws out some spoofing of the horror genre with a liberal larding of extradiegesis games and a quasi-Dadaist philosophy. Certainly a lot of the actual individual elements have been done before, and the whole is a splattery ball of unblended bits, but there’s a scale between “individual conceits” and “the whole film” at which a lot of the elements seem pretty imaginative and well-done.

On actual technical issues this movie doesn’t exactly shine, and “low-budget” seems to be the phrase of the day. I’m sure there’s some neat trickery involved in making the tire move around, some of which, I assume involves just plain rolling it in from off-camera, but the sets are pretty bare and the acting honestly fairly wooden most of the time — although a good half of the cast has the excuse, perhaps, that their acting is supposed to be terrible.

On balance, it’s mostly worth the watching. It’s not heinously long, it’s occasionally funny, and at its high points it’s actually rather interesting.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The Adjustment Bureau

I saw this at LSC this summer, which should give you an idea of how far behind I am on my reviews. It seems that pretty much every Philip K. Dick story’s been (at least ostensibly) turned into a film by now; I’m not sure how faithful the plot is to this one but its style and theme seem to be reasonably Dickian. Cinematographically I was taken by this one: the transitions surrounding the “doors” and the sense of a large city obstructing Norris’s progress is well-done and goes beyond the prosaic to give a certain sense of the strange. The themes are a bit heavy-handed with all the religious images and nattering about free-will, but where things really struck me as off-putting were in characterizations. Norris and the Bureau members are well-enough done (up to a certain woodenness in Matt Damon’s acting which he never seems to quite emote his way around), but the character of Elise is a bit problematic from my point of view. We see her first in a fairly stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode, involved in wacky trespassing hijinks and teaching our protagonist to be True To Himself and suchlike, and then, after that, we get really no development of her character at all. Norris gets to be the focus character and although we’re told that not just his future but hers is also on the line, we don’t get a real sense of her own involvement in the Big Fateful development: certainly Norris himself never actually seems to see fit to bring her in on the big picture, so the romance angle feels shallow and her own attitudes and motivation seem a bit weak, and her acquiescence to the romance at the end thus feels even a little bit deceptive: she’s not making an informed decision the way Norris is. The inequity in how the plot treats what are supposed to be the two central characters seems more than a little problematic.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Zorba the Greek

[Screenshot]Zorba the Greek seems like one of those films everyone has a vague idea about but nobody has actually seen. I knew it involved Greece and Anthony Quinn dancing the sirtaki to a well-known tune which has since been reused pretty much any time a film director needed a tune to set an appropriately Greek mood. Based on this very limited information, I kind of expected a story with Those Wacky Greeks teaching us all to love life and whatnot, a preconception the Netflix blurb didn’t disabuse me of.

So, with that background information, you might not be surprised (if you actually know the film) to learn that I found actually watching it to be pretty bleak. While the designated Wacky Greek does have the whole loving-life-in-adversity thing running as a theme, an awful lot of the running time is devoted to the drama of horrible island people doing awful things, and my overarching impression was less “oh, those Greeks, how joyously trangressive they are” than “damn, Greek villagers are assholes”. To its credit, it’s actually a quite well-done film, even if it’s not what I expected at all. Anthony Quinn shows a considerable range within his lunatic characterization, when all is told, and Alan Bates likewise shows a reasonable expressiveness, although his character never quite came to life for me. Most of the other actors are incidental: Kedrova is the only other notable speaking part, and doesn’t display much subtlety, but really it stands pretty much entirely on the strength of the two main characters. Other cinematic aspects I’m vaguer on, since the older a film is, the less I’m able to assess its cinematography. Certainly nothing jumped out as problematic, and the sets were appropriately evocative of the right atmosphere (not wholly surprising, since it was shot on location).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Waiting for “Superman”

[Screenshot]“Superman” claims to be out to explore what’s wrong with our educational system. I can’t help but think that it came to the table with some fairly strong preconceptions on this point. Some of those preconceptions are right, but others seem a bit like oversimplifications. Among the attitudes laid out fairly transparently: charter schools, especially KIPP schools, are good because they provide opportunities transcending economic class, teachers’ unions are bad because they protect incompetents and promote stasis, lotteries are extra-bad because they put children’s futures up to dumb luck, and funding isn’t actually the problem. Oh, and Michelle Rhee is sent down from heaven to save the Washington, DC public school system (that one clearly didn’t work out quite as well as the filmmakers had hoped, but I think we were all optimistic about Michelle Rhee).

I have my own take on these ideas, of course, mostly sympathetic to the views of this film, but not entirely in accord with them. It’s worth noting that purely from a craftsmanship point of view, this is an effective documentary; it’s a convincing advocate making good use of emotional connections, presenting the focus children and their parents sympathetically and wringing every last bit of tension possible out of the various lotteries (and cementing the notion that the lotteries are a particularly cruel way to choose students for the sought-after advanced programs). While watching the film, it’s pretty easy to believe that the solutions it suggests are the best, and it presents its information in a very convincing form (although the little cartoons seem a bit distracting and patronizing).

For my own part, I have the luxury of seeing our pre-college education system from the outside, and being dubious about its fixability and the nature of solutions. I had some contact with a quite good charter school in San Diego, so the idea that a charter school will generally outperform a public school isn’t wholly alien to me. I know little about the specifics of teachers’ unions, but I can well believe they promote stasis. With those premises I can more or less get on board, but I’m not sure where we go from there. The filmmakers seem to believe that the systems that work need to be expanded, which wouldn’t be a bad idea, but where do the resources to do so come from? Ultimately the problems with public schools come down to manpower, finding people who are passionate about teaching and competent to share their knowledge. The problem isn’t so much (as the “lemon” cartoon and voiceover claims) that bad teachers are perpetuated within the system, but that there aren’t enough good teachers to replace them, which seems the obvious problem with expanding charter schools and suchlike programs: eventually you’re going to end up filling teaching positions with the same kind of people as those who make our current system mediocre. “Superman” never addresses this concern, but there’s a lot wrong with education, and anyone who expects to get it all worked out in less than 2 hours of film is fooling themselves.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.