Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Rock on Film #18: Love and Mercy

In a darkened studio a young Brian Wilson, almost a silhouette, tells us in a whisper of the music to come. He can't keep up with the thoughts forming inside his mind and begins to sound incoherent. With a red flash in a corner of the screen the scene is extinguished.

Darkness. Sounds well up from the silence and drift across the audio field like sea creatures. Cooing harmonies, garbled speech, machines. And we shift in our seats as it's still dark and it looks like the projection has broken down. But then as the cacophony swells a patch of lightness grows in the lower screen, brightening with the rise in sound. And then it bursts into colour and movement as the Beach Boys rise to fame in a montage of press conferences, concerts and goofing around in the studio. Everything looks like moving cover art. And BAM! We're in.

Brian in the 80s buys a Cadillac but it's the strangest sale the beautiful saleswoman has ever made. His odd fragmentary speech broken by absent silence at first puts her on edge but she relaxes and lets things happen as she thinks of the location of the ejector seat button. But he exudes a kind of charm despite himself and when the mini circus of his minders, led by the ogreish Dr Landy enter to bundle him off, she is intrigued. Suddenly we're twenty years before and Brian, young and mop topped twists himself into a panic on a plane, shouting and flailing as his bandmates (who are mostly his brothers) pin him to the floor. Welcome to the world of Brian Wilson.

Then we are swung back and forth between these two episodes of Wilson's life: his slide down into mental illness when young and his rescue from its nadir in middle age. Through this we are shown the fragility of a man crippled by a blend of genius and naivete. This Kurt Vonnegut time pendulum has some scenes seemingly respond to others decades apart and it can get tight. Between the constant personal oppression by father or by psychiatric slave driver there's a real danger of claustrophobic despair. It is to this film's credit that that does not happen.

First, there's the perspective shift. When 60s Brian lies on a car bonnet and hears the music of the universe we are in his head. We see the older Brian through the eyes of Melinda from the Cadillac dealership whose pity and curiosity grow into love enough to attempt the demolition of his psychiatric wall. We are neither condemned to a tv-movie pageant of great scenes from history nor
led into a autohagiography. The central problem in each of the two periods has the same root but presents different symptoms and this by itself offers a kind of navigable texture.

Second, there's casting and performance. Brian Past and Brian Future (as they are named in the credits) are played by two different actors, neither of whom especially resemble Wilson but who both use acting to provide the prosthetics.

Paul Dano, already in danger of being the speed dial nutbag de jour, gives us what might be the peak of all his crazies. His Brian walks through the blinding California sunshine, hearing the music of the spheres and fails to convince anyone else of its beauty. He's so in love with what's in his head that the constant rejection of his attempts to communicate it work their way into him like a malignant growth. The smiling brightness he begins with, the sweeping gestures and leaping physicality in the early scenes shrink around him, pressing him into silence and stillness until he is rendered a formless mass on an elaborate bed. Dano works the room taking us there, meting out the craziness in irregular doses so he's hard to predict and judge. By the time he's drifting under the surface of his pool, eyes as wide as a drowning victim's, we feel the hopelessness he does that he'll ever say anything again that anyone else will listen.

John Cusack is the later, broken Brian. He is absent and lost but also incessantly curious. His enthusiasm is a feat of self restraint as he keeps his hands still in awkward positions and seems to drift in and out of awareness. His intellect is clearly visible through its incautious restlessness. It can be hard to watch him through the sheer anxiety his presence engenders. At the same time, we want to care for him, keep him safe and warm. This is the most striking performance by Cusack since the great Being John Malkovich also took him out of his overgrown teenager schtick. He has clearly observed the real Wilson but his physicality is not a cover version nor a splendid acting class exercise: it is an embodiment of character, just like Dano's.

This is what separates this film from lesser rock biopics like The Doors which played Oliver Stone director solos about Navajo mythology and the presence of the great Death between tv movie moments. Val Kilmer was fine in that one but he was the leader of a tribute band rather than a character in a movie. By contrast, Ian Hart in Backbeat plays a character called John Lennon who we're allowed to forget became JOHN LENNON because we want to see what this angry teenager would do next. Cusack and Dano do not waste the good writing handed to them to fill these roles and we are grateful to follow the strange tale despite its historicity.

There are tv-movie moments, though, and they do threaten to let the whole thing down. Mike Love is a dick at band meetings, endlessly ranting about keeping to the formula instead of all this progressive malarky. Characters supply timeline details as they comment that Pet Sounds didn't sell or toasting Good Vibrations, Brian's pocket symphony to God and the biggest selling single the Beach Boys ever had (that's a real line from the movie), session bassist extraordinaire Carol Kaye is puzzled that Brian scored her part in D but the double bassist in A (and then shares a knowing smile when it all works out). Also, do we at the morning tea of the age of Google really need end titles to tell us what happened to the key players? How many true life movies have come to a three point landing only to have the tourist brochure read out before we can leave? Unnecessary. If you really need that stuff put it in the movie. Except you don't need it.

The marks I'll take off aren't all for the midday movie moments in time, though. Paul Giamatti's Landy is written like a panto villain with added psychobabble. Giamatti rises just high enough above it with a performance that understands the kind of round the clock manipulation Landy exercised and the security that allowed view of its ugliness through. He makes his cartoon character repulsive to the touch and worryingly tactile. Still, I kept expecting him to come upon an act of defiance and bellow out a roaring: "Ah HAAAAA!"

If you can look past all that you 'll see some solid cinema. The studio recreations have the closeness of a Maysles documentary (or Godard's One Plus One done with the Stones) and some of the moments of musical cohesion are brought to heart pumping life. There's also some of the best judged handheld camera I've seen in a long time. One walking track through a couple of rooms in an apartment fills us with dread. The camera as adrift as its subject in the scene where Brian is testing the studio for the right vibrations as a small orchestra waits mute makes us feel seasick and crushed at his state. There is a montage that suggests a kind of reconciliation of past and present that clearly evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey but without archness or the ghost of a wink. Melinda has a few scenes where a conversation is from immediately before or after a shot of her thinking hard on a balcony or looking tired in a cafe. Elizabeth Banks' performance as Melinda is worth a mark for showing us why such a drop of Californian sun as she could believably fall for Brian in high fuckup mode. She carries a sadness that recognises his. We need this. Hers is the human warmth that gives us a lifeline through the ugliness of the later episode. Well cast. Well played.

Did I mention sound? That beginning audio collage wasn't just a fancy way of starting. Not only do we get an electronic score but riches. Constructed from raw studio takes, speech, singing and playing the music of this film is a series of mounting waves of sound, sometimes heavenly as when Brian is listening to his own imaginings with his eyes closed on the bonnet of a car, ugly and threatening, as when his lunch guests cutlery sounds like a quarries of hell. There are even timeline quotes from the original source like Murry Wilson, the father whose methods of music instruction cost Brian his hearing in one ear, saying, "I'm a genius too, ya know." See, that's how you'd put a historical soundbite into a film without the cheese.

Ok, I've said too much already. Just see the damn thing. If you miss it at the cinema then at least see it at home with good sound. Wilson had a hell of a life. The hell part seems to be over now (he did finally finish, record and tour the failed Smile project)  and his children were raised you know they suddenly rise they started slow long ago head to toe healthy wealthy and wise....

Monday, June 1, 2015

Review: EX MACHINA: Design by design

Geeky Caleb wins the chance to spend time with dot com genius and overlord stopped-counting-ionaire Nathan. The helicopter that delivers Caleb to Nathan's personal glacier almost presses Caleb to the ground with the force of its rotors as it takes off. We'll see that reprised in a few different ways in the next ninety minutes.

Nathan lives in a high security bunker. His bushy beard with suedehead crop is not hipster: he lives like no one's looking. Hungover at their first meeting he is asked about the greatness of the party that put him in the state of pain. "What party?" he says without a smile.

After being teased into signing a fearsome non-disclosure, Caleb is told that he will for the next seven days be testing Nathan's robot for self awareness. Caleb will be part of the greatest moment in the history of man. Caleb, awestruck, corrects this to the history of gods. It won't be long before we hear Nathan's streamlining of that thought.

In the next seven sections (partitioned with title cards) we see the progress Caleb makes with Ava the android, understanding or failing to understand the mind of his host and wondering about the origin of his own intelligence. It's a multi-layered game of cat and mouse between the Kurtz-like Nathan, the pixie-like Caleb who has wandered in from the forest and the born-adult Ava whose test-nailing attribute might well be guile. And that is what keeps the well-worn theme of the meaning of humanity when faced with a superior machine version of itself: humanity is over; how smooth and warm shall we make our death beds?

That isn't a spoiler. This is a film of fulfilled foreshadowing and surprising plot developments but neither of those devices is delivered as a twist. Rather we witness stations of progress in characters' awareness of the situation and their varying capacity to propel beyond them. This takes some fleet footed writing which then must be borne in exacting performances. These things we get.

Irish actor Domnhall Gleason's Caleb holds a weight of intellect and melancholy but keeps these beneath a light and airy glow. He is someone who has come to know his place in life, is saddened and kept lonely by it but has developed a kind of comfortable ache to cope with it. He lights up at the challenges in Nathan's bunker, animated at the gift of purpose.

Oscar Isaac dominates without visible effort. As Llewyn Davis, he was uptight and middle American. In A Most Violent Year he was all svelte self-made elegance. Here he plays a kind of real life Zeus, pummeling a punching bag like a Neanderthal but soaring through concepts like a beam of light. My first comparison was that of many who have reviewed this film: Kurtz. But Kurtz, highly civilised European brought the darkness that old Europe never shook free upon the unspoiled primeval world he found at the end point of empire. Nathan might well feel the self-loathing that plagues Kurtz (and drinks like a fish to prove it) but the sole power left to him that does not engender this points toward a more rarefied than Kurtz would have comprehended: he is not saddened by the discovery of his own nadir but by his apex; his own personal Turing test result is his awareness that he has created his own annihilation and that, in his view, it is just.

The performance that rivets us, though, is that of Alicia Vikander as Ava. Most of her body is mesh over transparent plastic which, like all difficult thinking, shows her workings. She is left with human-like hands and a Scandinavianly perfect face. Her near-human movements (accompanied by the slightest of mechanical whirs) and gaze must keep us watching and guessing as we sit with Caleb on the other side of the glass wall that divides them and look for signs. Given the technology that we witness in the build to her first appearance we will not be satisfied with a monophonic wind up toy but will demand awe at the sight of a machine whose thoughts, like our own, have travelled beyond initial programming to pursue that all driving remnant, desire. Vikander brings a classically trained dancer's control to keep shy of full human fluidity yet stop us with the possibilities of her development. This also goes for her vocal performance. We wonder if we are in uncanny valley and about to feel alienated or viewing it from a distance, fooled by own our best wishes.

The immersion of the world of this film must be celebrated here too for it strikes me as designed rather than art directed. What I mean by that is not just the expensive noiseless hush of the beige walls and the glass surfaces that give us a constant reminder of the notion of the copy; I mean the hot and cold electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's own Geoff Barrow which pours like cream and razor blades into the soft light; I mean the opportunity to savour the technology the way we did with 2001, The Andromeda Strain, and the opening sequence of Colossus; I mean the contrasting chaos and bad temper of the expensive Jackson Pollock on the wall which creates its own expansive dialogue; I mean the silver society lady in the Klimt portrait who seems at once armless and crucified; and I mean the restless unsettling questioning set before us, our own as well as the characters' that keeps us guessing throughout the digestibly brief running time. Alex Garland who penned the screenplays of the draggy 28 Days Later and the soggy Never Let Me Go has saved up his best for his directorial debut. He gives us a test. Take it. See how you do.