Love & Mercy (2014)

To be honest, I’m no huge fan of Brian Wilson or his music. Sure I have a copy of Pet Sounds and I acknowledge its undoubted artistry, but there’s a level of lionisation with Wilson’s work that sits uneasily with me. “Genius” is a word apt to be applied to creative white guys and the film uses it in a rather pointless final card, but at the very least he’s a virtuoso. Still, if you’re going to do a biopic of the man, this one certainly seems to take the right way, overlapping narratives (60s Brian played by Paul Dano, and 80s Brian played by John Cusack) to echo the way that Wilson himself juxtaposes harmonies and keys in his music. Cusack’s (lack of) resemblance to Wilson has already been covered pretty well elsewhere, but in large part he’s just a foil to Elizabeth Banks’s Melinda, who helps him to come out of the heavily-medicated dark hole that his doctor (an almost Grand Guignol villain turn from Paul Giamatti) keeps him in. That story feels like a bit of a cop-out (history is written by the winners after all), and Banks is almost too saintly, though she’s always been a sympathetic performer. However, when the film focuses on Dano’s remarkably poised performance, crafting music in the studio by channelling his wayward creative mind, it really hits its stride.

Love and Mercy film posterCREDITS
Director Bill Pohlad; Writers Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015.

Maps to the Stars (2014)

Whenever I visit Paris, I seem to get the opportunity to see an English-language film somewhat ahead of its release elsewhere in the world, and my experience has been that these films have probably been a bit too weird to find mainstream success. Such was the case with Anne Fontaine’s Adore (aka Perfect Mothers, 2013), and it’s certainly the case with this, the latest David Cronenberg film. It’s not the setting and the atmosphere that are unusual — this vision of family dysfunction amongst the hermetically sealed-off homes and egos of Hollywood is familiar from films like Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and, more recently, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013). Nor is it strange for the way it seems to share a spiritual kinship with that other twisted North American David’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) at the level of its unsettling atmospherics. What’s most disconcerting about the film (admittedly partly the reason it brings Lynch to mind) is in the melodramatic dynamics that are in play amongst the film’s protagonists — ageing diva Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), infomercial guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), his neurotic wife Cristina (Olivia Williams) and their brattish movie actor spawn Benjie (newcomer Evan Bird), and mysterious stranger Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) with her enigmatic burn scar and initial apparent fascination with Hollywood homes. It’s all beautifully and antiseptically shot, and it’s one of those films that impresses with the density of its ideas upon later reflection, but the experience of watching it is odd and unsettling enough that I remain unconvinced. There’s a recurring incest metaphor that expresses itself in the arc of several characters, primarily the bond between Havana and her mother Clarice, who died many decades earlier, while still in the bloom of youth. We see some (rather unconvincing black-and-white) footage of one of Clarice’s films, and she appears as a waking nightmare to Havana at several points, as do other dead presences to other characters. But this is only one way in which the past haunts the present characters. The strangest is the repetition throughout the film of a poem by French symbolist Paul Éluard. It’s spoken in the old film of Clarice’s, it’s recited as a mantra, it’s even being memorised by Benjie in his trailer. The poem, “Liberté”, was written in 1942 as a riposte to the Nazi control of France, which already loads it with a history to which the film doesn’t always seem equal. But this is, after all, a film in which characters are trying (not always with great success) to free themselves from the burden of the past. If it sets itself out to be a map of the interrelationships between these Hollywood players, then it’s clearly one that people should be wary of following.

Maps to the Stars film posterCREDITS
Director David Cronenberg; Writer Bruce Wagner; Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Friday 4 July 2014.

Anastasia (1997)

I don’t choose every film I watch, and this was one my wife wanted to watch, so I’m going to keep this review fairly brief, as I confess I don’t have too much to say about it. I remember when I was a child really liking Don Bluth’s directorial debut The Secret of NIMH (1982) and watching it back-to-back several times one day, so I didn’t want to discount that this film 15 years on (and now over 15 years old itself) might be a good animated feature. And yet I feel a little disappointed by the result.

To a certain extent, I imagine some of my antipathy towards it comes with being somewhat older than I used to be. The animation is still beautifully clear, with little concession to changing trends in modern animation, though I recall one scene of Anastasia hurrying up a staircase that surprised me with an apparently unnecessary ‘crane shot’ (i.e. the film’s point of view mimicking a camera craning out and back). Other scenes integrate the ‘camerawork’ better, particularly some nice massed ball scenes in the Winter Palace near the start.

Where the film does follow trends is in its amalgam of action and song, as was the fashion in the popular Disney films of the 1990s. The music rather anchors it in its time period (when it was made, not when it’s set) and though the musical numbers aren’t too shabby, I still find myself a little underwhelmed.

And then there’s the history. Here I should mention the film’s plot — it follows the travails of the young Anastasia (voiced by Kirsten Dunst), Grand Duchess of the Imperial Russian family and daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, deposed by the 1917 Russian Revolution and executed. Almost ten years later, it transpires that Anastasia escaped but lost her memory and grew up in an orphanage as Anya (Meg Ryan). She meets a young man and con artist called Dimitri (John Cusack), who helps her to learn the truth about her identity and then aids her flight to Paris, where her grandmother lives and is offering a reward for Anastasia’s return.

It has now been definitively established (admittedly after the film was made) that Anastasia was shot with her family in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, but the legend that she survived has been persistent throughout the century as a sort of aspirational folktale. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to get any sense of the political events of Russia in this period from this film. The chief antagonist is Christopher Lloyd’s mad monk Rasputin, and it’s his curse that spurs the Revolution so it seems. When Anya comes to light again, he continues to pursue her.

Obviously, one shouldn’t get too hung up on the history in this kind of animated fantasy musical, but nevertheless the very gap between history and folk legend presented here is so wide as to make it rather ridiculous. That said, I imagine the film will please plenty of people who are perhaps closer to the target demographic, and indeed its box office figures at the time were very healthy. If you are able to put aside the questionable history and embrace the film’s wayward romanticism, you may really like it. I’ll just be the grump in the corner on this one.

CREDITS
Directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman; Writers Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White and Eric Tuchman; Starring John Cusack, Meg Ryan, Kirsten Dunst, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 30 August 2013.

The Paperboy (2012)

The review below was written before I introduced half-marks to my rating scale, so mentions of ‘two-stars’ should be taken to mean ‘two-and-a-half stars’ (i.e. exactly 50%).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Lee Daniels | Writers Lee Daniels and Pete Dexter (based on the novel by Pete Dexter) | Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer | Starring Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack | Length 101 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 20 March 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Millennium Films

There’s a certain kind of film which dominates the film schedules around the start of each year, being the type of film which is up for awards contention. These films can be good, but they also have a certain belaboured worthiness. Once that period has passed, you get lots of really interesting films that never stood a chance with awards judges, and this can often be the most exhilarating time for filmgoing, at least for mainstream audiences (the dynamic, if that’s the right word, is quite different for the arthouse). Even when these films don’t quite hit a quality threshold they can often be rather interesting. They’re what I would call ‘two-star films’, which are often unfairly overlooked when people are reassessing film history in hindsight.

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