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The Brian Wilson Story Earns A Triumphant Treatment In ‘Love & Mercy’

By Roger Moore, Tribune News Service (TNS)

The best musical biographies give you a moment when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you witness the miracle of a song’s creation. We get a chill as Ray Charles cooks up “What’d I Say?” or Mozart madly turns a baroque ditty into a mini-masterpiece, straight off the frilly cuff.

“Love & Mercy,” the new film about the rise, fall and revival of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, treats us to several of those. Producer (“Brokeback Mountain”) turned director Bill Pohlad takes his camera close to the keys as Brian plucks piano strings with hairpins, leaving a few on adjacent strings to create a rattling echo. We hear what singer Mike Love (Jake Abel) heard in the chords that turned into “Good Vibrations,” Wilson’s “pocket symphony.”

Always-engaging, “Love & Mercy” tells a tale of two Brians — the young, competitive genius who transcended the surf, sun, and sexy girls pop that made the band famous and concocted “Pet Sounds,” his answer to the best of The Beatles. Paul Dano, in a brilliant performance, lets us drift into young Wilson’s skull and experience the slack-jawed trances that had him translate the sounds in his head into records. Wilson, as Dano’s version of him says in the movie, “plays the studio” like an instrument.

But “Love & Mercy” captures some of the downside of that genius. We see his descent into madness, the drugs, and perfectionism that drove it. And we witness the lifelong struggle for acceptance by his abusive father (Bill Camp, subtle and sharp), and revenge by detailing the abuse — physical and passive-aggressive mental — after his father’s death.

John Cusack plays this older, post-breakdown Wilson, a twitchy, tentative millionaire genius who has the guilelessness and sweetness of an abused puppy. That’s the Wilson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) met when he came to buy a Cadillac from her in the late 1970s. That Wilson was in the care of and totally under the thumb of therapist/guru Dr. Eugene Landy, played with bug-eyed bile by Paul Giamatti.

Landy may have saved Wilson from his downward mental spiral, something “Love & Mercy” doesn’t show. But by the time Ledbetter met a smitten Wilson, the relationship had turned manipulative, controlling, over-medicating, and predatory.

Pohlad, working from a script by Oren “I’m Not There/The Messenger” Moverman and Michael A. Lerner (“Dumb and Dumber”), weaves these two eras together, showing Wilson at his creative peak, the beginnings of his descent, and then at the moment of his rebirth.

Structurally, it works even if we suspect much is being left out. Landy diagnosed the man as “paranoid schizophrenic,” a not-unreasonable assumption, based on the late ’60s Wilson’s behavior. Somehow, the helper turned into a predator, and that story is a movie in itself.

Dano put on a layer of puffiness for the part and makes us feel the control freak neediness of an artist who never felt appreciated by those closest to him. Cusack adds vocal and physical mannerisms to the later Brian, but wearing his familiar jet-black dye job undercuts the illusion. He never loses himself in the role. Banks nicely hints at the attraction Ledbetter must have felt before her need to rescue him took precedence in the relationship.

“Love & Mercy” strikes all the expected notes of hunger, creative fervor, success, tragedy, and vindication that we expect from such movies. But if you don’t get a little chill hearing Dano, doing his own rehearsal singing, picking out “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or “In My Room” or “God Only Knows” at the piano, your musical tastes need broadening.
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“Love & Mercy”

Cast: Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti
Directed by Bill Pohlad, script by Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner. A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 2:00
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, drug content and language

Photo: Francois Duhamel via Roadside Attractions/TNS

Boorman Says Farewell To The Cinema With ‘Queen And Country’

By Roger Moore, Tribune News Service (TNS)

John Boorman, one of the giants of British cinema, just turned 82. And the director of Deliverance, Excalibur and The General has an announcement tucked into the finale of Queen and Country, just now opening in the United States.

“You may have noticed that the last shot of the film was a camera that stops,” he says. “That was my way of indicating that this is my last film.”

So even though “Eastwood is, what, three years older than me? And (Portuguese director) Manoel de Oliveira is, oh, 106,” it’s time.

But not before he finished Country, his long-planned sequel to the Oscar-nominated 1987 autobiographical dramedy Hope and Glory. That film re-created his experiences growing up in World War II Britain. Queen and Country catches up with his character (named William Rohan) as he serves in the early 1950s British Army, training on the home front, hoping not to be sent to Korea.

“My experience of the Army was that if you extract combat, you really emphasize the absurdity of it. …The object of training in the Army is to brainwash the soldier… to crush any individualism, any independent thinking. Make your soldiers into automatons.”

And looking back on that, Boorman found it funny. So Queen and Country has service comedy hijinks, as a pal named Percy steals an officer’s cherished Boer War era clock from the company mess. In real life — and “everything in this story really happened” — there are consequences to that.

“The Percy character was court martialed. And I took him in handcuffs to the military prison. I still have the receipt I was given. ‘Received from Sgt. Boorman, the live body of Private Bradshaw.'”

Boorman laughs. “Absurd.”

Hope and Glory was full of nostalgia in a child’s view of the “adventure” of war — school closed when it is accidentally bombed, children shipped to the country where cantankerous Grandfather presides, and amuses. Boorman was determined to do the sequel because it captures another turning point in British history.

“The older soldiers, the ones who’d been in ‘The War,’ and were training us, they still clung to the idea of Imperial Britain and the British Empire. The biggest empire ever had vanished within a handful of years. We, the younger generation, embraced the change and England became a very different place. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the art scene transformed by about 1960. All the class rigidity that went along with ’empire,’ we younger people were glad to see that go.”

Boorman is exiting the screen to the sounds of applause. Queen and Country is winning him his best reviews in decades. It is “the film of an old master (Boorman directed his first feature in 1965) who still has one of the most magical eyes in the business,” says Stuart Klawans in The Nation, echoing an opinion shared by many.

As the film suggests, Boorman was film crazy (“American movies seemed so glamorous to those of us growing up in a pretty bleak post-war Britain.”). He grew up near Shepperton Studios, and after the Army, he got a job as a film editor for the BBC and worked his way toward directing movies. His career path mirrored that of the great editor-turned director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India), who became a friend and mentor. Lean died at 83, in 1991.

“I was with him just before he died, and he was trying to make Nostromo and cancer felled him,” Boorman recalls. “He told me ‘I do hope I get well enough to make this film, because I feel I’m just beginning to get the hang of it.’

“That’s how I feel, that I’m just ‘getting the hang of it.'”

(c)2015 Tribune Content Agency, LLC, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: Flickr user oneras

Director, Star Talk About Revisiting ‘The Troubles’ In The Irish Civil War Film ‘71’ 

By Roger Moore, Tribune News Service (TNS)

Director Yann Demange doesn’t want people to pigeon-hole his pulse-pounding Northern Ireland chase picture ’71 as, well, “a chase picture,” or simply another tale set amid “The Troubles,” the decades-long civil war in Northern Ireland.

“When people call it ‘The Troubles,’ it feels a bit patronizing,” says Demange, a London native. “‘Troubles’ is like a bit of spin, that we cannot really come to grips with what happened or was happening there. It was a CIVIL WAR, man. And people are still trying to find out what happened, find out what happened to their loved ones.”

And the son of a French mother and Algerian father, who calls the classic French army vs. insurgents thriller The Battle of Algiers his chief inspiration in making ’71, didn’t want to make “just a genre” picture — a young British soldier, separated from his unit, hunted by IRA gunmen, by more peaceable IRA members, unionist paramilitaries, the British army, and British intelligence.

“You have a certain responsibility, treating a subject from recent history as divisive as this,” he says. “You can’t just exploit it and make it into a simple-minded chase movie that ignores the context that all this is happening in.”

The main sensibilities that Demange, working with a Gregory Burke screenplay, wanted to avoid offending were those of his star. Derbyshire native Jack O’Connell is Irish Catholic. He says he had to rethink his dogmatic attitudes about the conflict to play Private Gary Hook.

“I had to make myself know LESS about the situation, the context,” says O’Connell. “In Gary Hook’s generation, he wouldn’t have known a lot. He was a recruit being stationed on what he was told was a peace-keeping mission. If anything, working on this film helped me take a more impartial view. I won’t be as quick to point fingers, because the film doesn’t allow anybody to point fingers. It was a warlike situation, with heinous wrongdoings on either side. And there were innocents on both sides, which is true of any war and it’s what makes this film universal.”

Demange met with veterans of all sides of the conflict and has taken great care to show the film where it was set. He says that when you tell someone you meet in Belfast that you’ve made a movie about ‘The Troubles,’ “they just roll their eyes. There’s a long legacy of films, from The Wind that Shakes the Barley, to Bloody Sunday, both about Northern Ireland and ‘The Troubles’ specifically, that I thought about. But those earlier films freed me of the responsibility of giving a history lesson.”

He could use that historical legacy as backdrop for a horrific day and night in the life of a green British recruit, on the run and threatened from all sides. The resulting thriller, named after the year the violence truly escalated (71) is earning the best reviews of the new film year, “a lapel-grabbing, immersive viewing experience likely to shake up audiences” Trevor Johnston said in the film journal Sight & Sound.

Demange may be concerned with the delicate politics and opening of old wounds that his film might lead to. O’Connell, 24, starved and tested star of the POW drama Unbroken, was all about the “freakish heat wave” in part of shooting (he was in full combat gear for the daylight scenes) and “freeezing cold” night sequences, shot later.

In one night sequence, he overran his mark and “careered, right into the camera. Knocked myself out. Cold. I felt fairly hard done by,” says a chuckling O’Connell, who as a teen trained as a military cadet and gave some thought to a military career. But does he, like Demange, worry about opening “old wounds” with a film about the conflict?

“I hope people see that the blame goes all around,” O’Connell says. “I hope we’ve moved on. Yann may say he’s worried about that. But I think he’s got an Algerian passport, so he’s not THAT worried. If ‘Troubles’ start up again, he”ll be LONG gone!”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image via Roadside Attractions

‘Divergent’ Is ‘Hunger Games’ Without The Arrows

By Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

“Divergent,” the latest outcast-teen-battles-The System thriller, is similar enough to “The Hunger Games” that hardcore Katniss fans may dismiss it.

But it’s a more streamlined film, with a love story with genuine heat and deaths with genuine pathos.

And director Neil Burger (“The Illusionist,” “Limitless”) inserts us into this world with a lack of fuss that the stiff, exposition-stuffed “Games” films have never managed.

So let’s skip past any suggestions of novelist Veronica Roth knocking off the formula of Suzanne Collins’ wildly successful “Games” novels. Remember, one has “Katniss” for a heroine, the other “Tris.” World of difference.

Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) lives in a post-war future in the semi-ruined city of Chicago. Fenced in against the devastated outside world in battered but still habitable wind-generator equipped skyscrapers, the El trains still run and society still functions thanks to “factions.”

We have the Candor faction, famed for popping off without self-censoring, and Amity faction, the earnest, workers and land-loving farmers. The Erudite, let by imperious Kate Winslet, are the scientific, smart class, and Dauntless is the reckless “soldier” faction of young fighters who dive off the El rather than waiting for it to stop.

And then there is Abnegation, which, if you look it up, means “self-denial.” They are the self-sacrificing public servants. Tris, or Beatrice, as her parents (Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd) know her, grew up in that class — redistributing food, governing by consensus, liberal. It’s an easy fit. Abnegations may “reject vanity” and wear drab clothes in shades of gray, but that doesn’t mean a girl can’t have makeup, lip gloss and highlights, never a hair out of place.

When teens hit a certain age, they go through “The Test” and are told where their strengths lie. And like a college kid declaring a major, there is a “Choosing Ceremony” where you cut your hand and with a drop of blood, declare your faction — for life.

Tris is confused; empathetic but fearless, smart but earthy. Her “Test” doesn’t take. The tester (Maggie Q) tells her she’s “Divergent,” and that the other factions fear Divergents. So Tris has a secret she keeps as she declares “Dauntless” and undertakes Darwinian training with the leather-jacketed jocks, learning to fight with guns, knives and her fists, learning to conquer her fears.

Woodley is a wonderful, transparent actress who lets us see her thoughts, especially when it comes to the hunky stand-offish Dauntless lad (Theo James) who trains her. No, she doesn’t have any memorable lines. And yes, she seems too dainty and fragile to be up to this soldiering thing.

Especially when you compare her to the raw-boned and gangly Jennifer Lawrence of “Hunger Games.” But Woodley makes Tris vulnerable and cunning as she is given drugs that play tricks on her mind to test her.

What novelist Roth was aiming for here was a parable about creating well-rounded, compassionate adults in a world where The System is literally inside your head. As science fiction, it’s no heavier than Stephenie Meyer’s “The Host,” or “Ender’s Game” or any of the other Young Adult fare in this genre — a world we recognize, sliced up into stark metaphors of social strata.

But “Hunger Games” fans shouldn’t feel superior in looking down on this sci-fi variation on a rebel teen theme. This latest franchise is not inferior. It’s pretty much the same “Games,” give or take a bow and arrow. And by not diverging from that simple formula for a Young Adult sci-fi hit, the author and filmmakers reveal the shallowness of both series.

Photo: hannah strawberry via Flickr