Thursday, July 30, 2015

Love & Mercy

Behind every famous person is a dark story from their personal life. Bad childhood, addictions and dependencies, stormy affairs and's frequently something they want to keep out of the press. The skeletons sooner or later emerge from the closet, whether it be through talk shows, (auto)biographies or from a close source.

Bill Pohlad's Love & Mercy focuses on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys fame. Along with making incredible sounds for the band, Wilson also paved the way for producing music. But far away from the stage spotlights and recording studios is a man plagued by abuse and personal torments.

As is the case with any biopic, it all comes down to casting the right actor for the lead role, especially if the subject of said biopic is still alive. And Pohlad certainly had the right frame of mind when he cast Paul Dano and John Cusack as younger and older versions of Wilson. Dano effortlessly depicts Wilson as a man whose fame can't overcome his demons. (Finally, he's in a role where someone's not beating the shit out of him.) Cusack, meanwhile, depicts Wilson as someone who long ago let his demons control his life. It's a stunning contrast between the two performances.

But Love & Mercy isn't just about Dano and Cusack's performances. The work from Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti are also worth mentioning. Much like Felicity Jones' work in The Theory of Everything, Banks fills the part of the doting woman. (It's much better than it sounds.) And Giamatti is a scary son of a bitch. (And not just because of the wig he wears.)

Love & Mercy isn't your standard biopic. Pohlad shifts between different times of Wilson's stormy life with ease though not without a slow start. Oh, and be sure to watch this with a really good sound system.

My Rating: ****1/2

Infinitely Polar Bear

We as a society are fascinated with how the human mind works. Primarily how a damaged mind works. We revel in watching and reading fictitious sociopaths (but at the same time fear encountering one in our daily lives). But we also like seeing how a mind ravaged by mental illness functions.

Frequently said mental illness depicted is either depression or schizophrenia because they're "easy" to depict. (Well, four percent of the world's population suffer from the former, so there's that.) Other disorders that frequently get depicted (wrongly most of the time) are obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. More often than not the bad moments are the only ones that get highlighted. But amid the bad moments, there are good ones as well.

Maya Forbes' Infinitely Polar Bear focuses on living with bipolar disorder. With this being based on Forbes' experiences of her father fighting the disease, the film has decidedly a more candid depiction of bipolar disorder than in other fiction.

With bipolar disorder being an illness of many complications, being depicted requires the right actors for the job. And Forbes did just that by hiring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana in two of the main roles. Along with Imogene Wolodarsky (Forbes' own daughter) and Ashley Aufderheide, they show that although life with bipolar disorder can be frustrating, there are some bright spots from its recovery.

Infinitely Polar Bear is a humanizing portrait of a dehumanizing illness. It's a film about family, something not frequently seen in films released during the summer. So if you like the actors or know someone living with this illness, be sure to see this.

My Rating: ****

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Safe

[For those curious, this is a regular feature over at The Film Experience. Previous entries can be found here.]

Safe is a film that recently garnered new attention thanks to its recent Criterion transfer. By the time the 1990s were over, the careers of director Todd Haynes and star Julianne Moore had earned a wider audience because of this film. (Moore finally got her overdue Academy Award earlier this year but Haynes has yet to receive such acclaim for his directing though he did get nominated for writing Far from Heaven).

Back to Safe. There are many working elements of the film that you notice. For instance, the film's use of white noise adds to its sense of paranoia. And thanks to Moore's performance, it becomes a film that may be too much for one to handle.

The best shot of Safe

It's this shot that I feel best sums up Safe. This is after Carol's first attack, and it mirrors what's to follow for her. Amid her suffering of mysterious causes, she's alone in trying to come back to reality. Like many other shots later on in the film (including one of the final shots), Carol is framed in an isolated center shot. Even with many people caring about her well-being, Carol's all alone in her potential recovery.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

BOOK VS MOVIE: A Slight Trick of the Mind/Mr. Holmes

Throughout fiction, there are those characters that have lasted the test of time. Whether it's the brooding leading men of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters or the many creations from Jim Henson, they always capture the imagination of those who discover them.

None more so than the great detective that is Sherlock Holmes. Even though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grew to hate his creation (even trying to kill off Holmes to no avail), the fact that Holmes has persevered after all these years says a lot about his staying power. And even long after Doyle's death, the legacy lives on. (Within the last six years, we've gotten the Guy Ritchie-directed movies starring Robert Downey, Jr., the BBC-produced TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and the CBS-produced TV series starring Jonny Lee Miller.)

And the number of books over the years is astounding. One such book is Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind, which follows Holmes long since his crime-solving days with Dr. John Watson, and it shows throughout how age can affect and betray one's memory. (Not a good thing for the world's only consulting detective.)

Bill Condon's film Mr. Holmes, as is the case with most adaptations, does stray away from the original source. That's not entirely a bad thing, mind you. Thanks to the work from Condon, Ian McKellen and Laura Linney, the film has a new, more broader perspective of Cullin's novel. (And admittedly, it's more playful than what Cullin wrote.)

So which is better? Both A Slight Trick of the Mind and Mr. Holmes have their own charms but they also show something else. They show how the ghosts of the past can haunt you. And they provide a poignant glimpse on life and aging. (Also, you can enjoy them even if you're not deeply familiar with Doyle's stories.)

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The British Invaders Blogathon

After the success of it last year, Terence of A Shroud of Thoughts is again hosting his British Invaders Blogathon. The objective is simply, really: just write about any British-produced film as long as it was made before 1990. Feeling ambitious (and, quite frankly, bored out of my skull), I decided to talk about a few films with a common theme. (The theme's pretty obvious if you know the films.) The films in questions are:

(1961, dir. Basil Dearden)
(1971, dir. John Schlesinger)
(1986, dir. Stephen Frears)
(1987, dir. James Ivory)

(The list starts after the jump.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! is decidedly different from other films of a similar nature like Michael Clayton and A Few Good Men. Sure, it looks like them but its mood is clearly more upbeat as the film wears on. Granted, in a dark way but still.

Indeed, the film is based on real events but it's not your average ripped from the headlines story. As the details begin to unfold, it becomes less about the crime a corporation is committing and more about the erratic behavior of the man trying to expose it. It swiftly becomes something that sounds like it's straight out of the tabloids.

The man in question is Mark Whitacre, played here by Matt Damon. He's a man who lives a rather regular life: good job, steady marriage, things like that. But as his involvement in trying to expose the scam further, it's clear that there's more to Mark than he's letting on. And Damon gives a performance with an air of odd curiosity.

There's an element in The Informant! that at first glance makes very little sense. The incoherent narration makes the viewer wonder why it's even there in the first place. But then there's a solid explanation much later on, and everything just clicks. It's a small detail but an effective one in Soderbergh's hands.

The Informant! is a mature comedy, something not frequently seen nowadays. (And considering the many comedic actors amongst the supporting cast, that's saying something.) And knowing how bleak Soderbergh's other films can get, it's nice to see something with some humor.

My Rating: ****1/2

Monday, July 13, 2015

The 1947 Blogathon

Karen of Shadows and Satin and Kristina of Speakeasy are hosting a blogathon where the main objective is to talk about a particular film from 1947. Knowing that Black Narcissus would be a popular choice (it was), I decided to opt for something less conventional:

(1947, dir. Carol Reed)
(Imagine my surprise when it was chosen by another blogger as well.) And with its recent transfer on Criterion, it was just begging for a re-watch from me.

Friday, July 3, 2015

BOOK VS MOVIE: Testament of Youth

There have been many acts of brutality throughout history. And throughout all of them, they have been chronicled for the sake of fiction. Many of said chroniclers weren't even alive when these events occurred but if done properly, they can be just as haunting as the actual events.

That said however, many writers will channel their own experiences into their fiction. (See Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and almost everything Ernest Hemingway wrote pertaining to World War I as examples.) But even then writers won't sit down and document everything they experienced from their perspective instead of from a fictitious narrator. Thankfully there are those exceptions.

Vera Brittain's memoir Testament of Youth chronicles her life before, during and after the events of World War I. Much like Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong decades later, Brittain writes about how this brutal battle changed the world she knew and claimed the lives of those she cares for deeply. Through her perspective as a V.A.D. nurse (and with the occasional aid of poetic prose), she witnesses her generation lose its innocence.

A few omitted details aside, James Kent's adaptation stays true to what Brittain witnessed. Through Rob Hardy's cinematography, the film shows the life of Brittain (and countless others) drastically change from bright-eyed and innocent to broken and jaded. (If only Brittain had know this current generation is the same as hers...)

So which of the two comes out on top? Both are stunning though not without their flaws (the memoir gets too poetic in spots, and the film has a penchant for dramatic flair) but still, both provide a personal insight to a futile battle that scarred an era.

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Inside Out

Animation nowadays generally has a mixed consensus. Some consider it as an unoriginal genre thanks to its dependence on pop culture references and recycled gags. Others view the genre as a way to explore one's imagination. Either way, you get some interesting concepts from animation.

Most of the time, said concepts come from Pixar, and they frequently deliver. So how has Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen's Inside Out, their newest feature, fared? Well, in comparison to several other animated films in recent memory (including some from Pixar themselves), it holds up very, very well.

The concept of Inside Out is indeed an original one. (After all, how often do you see psychology featured prominently in an animated film?) As is frequently the case with Pixar's work, Inside Out is the kind of film that can be enjoyed by both kids and adults.

Evidently more for the latter demographic, considering whom is amongst the five principal voices. You have two alums of Saturday Night Live (Amy Poehler and Bill Hader), two actors from the cast of The Office (Mindy Kaling and Phyllis Smith), and a profane comedian (Lewis Black). And all five of them do exceptional work, Poehler in particular.

Inside Out, as mentioned above, is very well done. It's not very often you see an animated film this clever and original. And as expected for something from Pixar, yes, it will make you cry at some point.

My Rating: *****