Jun 29, 2015

Love and Mercy


Even with a happy ending, the story of the emotional travails of Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind The Beach Boys, is very sad. Wilson is played by two gifted and committed actors: Paul Dano, who plays him in his youth, full of creative exuberance and psychic hurt, and John Cusack, who plays him when he is older, depressed and being manipulated by psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, utterly evil and relishing the role). Both Dano and Cusack successfully convey a personality filled with layers of sweetness, eccentricity, wonder, fear, hurt and mental illness, and director Bill Pohlad achieves a believable continuum of character via his two wonderful actors.
The blond, sunny Beach Boys, poster kids for California insouciance, were the product of a deeply unhappy home, with an absent, alocholic mother and a physically and psychologically abusive father (Bill Camp). The extent of this man's monstrous pettiness is summed up in a scene in which young Brian plays him the masterpiece that was to become "God Only Knows", really one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and his father diminishes it in a virtuosic show of undermining.
The movie is structured as a back and forth between Wilson in the early eighties, when he had fallen prey to unscrupulous Dr. Landy, who overprescribed drugs and kept him away from his family, writing himself into Wilson's will, among other abuses, and Wilson at the height of his creative powers, when he came up with the album Pet Sounds, a masterwork that was ahead of its time and was not, like everyone wanted, yet another sunny Beach Boys hit.
The script by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner refuses to ascribe clear reasons to Wilson's mental instability. We don't know if he always heard voices, if he heard voices because his father used to smack him hard in the ear, causing him to lose some of his hearing, if his creativity already came with a dose of mental imbalance, or this was caused by the stress of being a misunderstood genius teetering between success and failure, the demands of his own creative ambition and other people's expectations. This, in a way is fine, since life doesn't always offer such neat explanations. Through today's science we now know that creativity and mental illness are sometimes physiologically intertwined and that emotional stress can have traumatic effects on mental health. In Wilson's case, throw in wild early success and an overly sensitive soul and you may well have a recipe for disaster. For another devastating real-life parallel of the damage toxic fathers can cause to their talented, sensitive sons see also the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Cobain's response to parental humiliation manifested itself in violently angry self-destruction which led to suicide, whereas Wilson was too meek a soul for anger. He preferred quiet obliteration through drugs and a three-year stint in bed.  Perhaps it is thanks to this mild disposition that he survived.
Wilson's father and his shrink provide destructive father figures, but the movie is anchored by the calming presence of Melinda Ledbetter (the excellent Elizabeth Banks), who meets Wilson cute at the Cadillac dealership where she works, and they fall in love. She discovers the abuse that the shrink is subjecting Wilson to and, with the poised tact and listening skills of a good car saleswoman, helps Wilson regain his life. Banks deserves awards for this performance, even if the showier and equally deserving roles belong to Dano and Cusack.
Accompanying this story are the cascading melodies of Wilson's genius, which director Bill Pohlad uses in snippets of Wilson's complex arrangements at the recording studio, in which we can hear their rich layers of melody and harmony separately in a sonic metaphor for the painstaking work of creativity. Composer Atticus Ross (Trent Reznor's collaborator for film soundtracks) also created sonic mashups of the noises and music in Wilson's head, which help us listen in amazement to the pristine, beautiful songs that eventually came out of him.


The Tribe


A tough and remarkable first feature film by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, The Tribe is a harrowing story of a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf and mute kids. A young man finds his way to the school, on what we asume is the first day of class, only to find himself down a rabbit hole of abuse and corruption. Usually, when one thinks of disabled children, one thinks of innocent, vulnerable beings, but in this case this vulnerability is exploited to turn them into productive members of the criminal class.
This is the story of a young man that is dehumanized by violence and abuse; that is, something we have seen in many films before, but because the setting is the world of deaf mutes, and Slaboshpitsky has chosen to film it in sign language, without subtitles, it takes an added dimension. He fully immerses us in the silent, yet enormously expressive world of people who can't hear nor speak, who happen to live in a dedicated and efficient system of corruption.
All the recent movies that I have seen from Russia and Ukraine in this case, are concerned with the pall of a corruption so toxic and entrenched that it poisons every aspect of life. Slaboshpitsky takes this to an extreme, making the setting for the breakdown of civilized society this dilapidated school where deaf and mute kids are not only not helped to integrate into society, but are warehoused and turned into a gang of thugs. If only the masterminds of corruption would apply their ruthless efficiency to doing good. Alas.
We learn the rules as the young man learns them. The deaf mute carpentry teacher is running a racket, from panhandling, to robbery, to prostitution with these kids, but Slaboshpitsky shows us how there is always someone higher in the chain of command. As the young man soon finds out, it starts with the main school bully, who is in thrall to another bully higher than him, to the carpentry teacher, all the way up to a bureaucrat who has successfully made this school into his little mafia fiefdom.
In the first minutes of the film we see a school opening ceremony with the institute's principal and assorted teachers, a beleaguered teacher in a classroom tries to teach the older kids something about Europe, but then these figures of authority disappear, never to be seen again. The kids are on their own, alone at night in the empty corridors, in their narrow cots, in a place that's falling apart.  No parents, no guards, no teachers. There is no solace, there is no order but that of violence and intimidation. The social stratification of the school as a hive for criminals is as sophisticated as an ant colony. This boarding school is an apt metaphor for the state at large.
The young man, burly and sweet looking, promptly understands that in order to survive, he needs to show brute force. We instinctively sense (this is one of those rare films that makes us question all the clichés and stereotypes that ordinary movies siphon into our brains) that he is a good kid who will not make it, but he is tough, and soon he is promoted through the ranks, by way of an unfortunate incident which is one of the most swiftly shocking things I've ever seen onscreen.
Then, as they say, shit happens, in the form of feelings. He falls for a girl, a fellow student, and their grudging intimacy, shown full blown in a couple of raw and powerful sex scenes, their found humanity, is the cause of his downfall.  He wants connection and normalcy in a place that won't have it. The end is beyond tragic.
Not only is it remarkable that we can follow the story from watching what happens, trying to understand it only through action and expression, without words, but Slaboshpitsky's formal control of the medium is extraordinary. The camera work is astonishing, the storytelling always focused. I was wondering how the script was written. Did Slaboshpitsky write dialog and then translate it to sign language, or did he just indicate the gist of conversations? There is no music, we can only hear the sounds these people cannot hear, their muffled voices as they scream at each other in silence.
This movie is not for the faint of heart, but it is an extraordinary film.

May 26, 2015

Ex-Machina


A creepy science fiction film by screenwriter Alex Garland, Ex-Machina worries about the terrifying notion of man creating artificial intelligence capable of consciousness. This is a fear as old as time, told by storytellers in tales featuring man-made creatures from The Golem, to Frankenstein, to passive-aggressive Hal 2000.
Now Alicia Vikander plays Ava, a sultry robot who looks half human, half hardware. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, her creator, an ornery, drunk Silicon Valley grade A asshole whose version of playing God is not only creating consciousness in a robot, but also messing with other people's heads, among other self-involved pursuits we discover later. Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a brilliant nerd employee, is invited to Nathan's secluded compound to perform a test on Ava to determine if she exhibits human consciousness. What follows is a satisfying brain riddle, with Caleb developing a crush on the very lovely, transparently human Ava, and Ava playing games with his poor heart and mind, while an out of control Nathan thinks he controls things.
Luckily, Garland is interested in the sterile yet febrile atmosphere that surrounds Nathan, and in the mind games robots and their makers play. He is interested in the discomfort created by the balance of power of artificial consciousness in interaction with humans, let alone the God complex that comes with it, and if indeed conscious, the almost inevitable rebellion of the created against their creator.
Slowly and delightfully, the movie turns into a quiet horror flick that hints at the disturbing possibilities of a creature like Ava unleashed into the world. She doesn't care about ruling the universe, but she has been created with only self-interest at heart. She is, after all, her father's daughter. Garland's hall of mirrors script and his poise as a director examine our capacity for invention and the uses we put to it with an unsentimental, refreshingly non-preachy eye. He is not an optimist. (I hate optimists).
If creepy sci-fi with a side of sang froid is not your cup of tea, watch this movie for the work of the three wonderful actors, and in particular for a scene where Oscar Isaac gets his groove on. A quietly controlled actor with an angelical face, he tends to play men with a cold, driven side, (A Most Violent Year, The Two Faces Of January) or rueful misanthropes (Inside Llewyn Davis). He is the best thing in the movie, although Vikander does a splendid job of acting like a robot acting like a human, never an easy feat. For a robot passing as human, she is subtly alluring. Her allure is not studied, and hence makes it possible to believe that Caleb, or any other man, would succumb to her unspoiled charms.

P.S: For a comparable acting tour de force, you can endure Ridley Scott's uneven, all over the place Alien prequel, Prometheus, in which an excellent Michael Fassbender portrays a robot who likes to imitate Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.