Love & Mercy

Inside Out Would Have Done Him a Lot of Good

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson

 

I earned my famous name.” – Brian Wilson

 

STORYLINE: The Beach Boy’s melodious mastermind, Brian Wilson, suffers the consequences of a near lethal cocktail of musical genius mixed with fragile immaturity – where Mozart might have gone had LSD been readily accessible on the streets of Vienna in 1781. Wilson’s frustrated attempts to earn the love (or even a modicum of respect) from his clueless father result in paranoid schizophrenia.

Drugs and a parasitic psychotherapist named Landy, to whom Wilson is tethered throughout the 1980s, conspire to derail his life and any hope for normalcy. Enter Melinda Ledbetter with whom Brian falls in love. Her devotion to him inspires her to confront the demonically abusive Dr Landy, and attempt to free Brian from the emotional and drug-forged chains that bind him.

MORAL PREMISE: desperate attempts to earn a father’s love will shut you off from the love of others and will shrivel you emotionally, while allowing yourself to be loved by someone else can lead to mental and emotional healing.

MY  TAKE: Paul Dano (There Will be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, 12 Years a Slave) takes on a great acting challenge in the character of Brian Wilson. The mercurial Wilson achieved legendary status due in part to his unorthodox arrangements and the beautiful harmonies that established the Beach Boys as forever cool. Inspired by the Beatles’s Rubber Soul album (December, 1965), Wilson and the Beach Boys produced a string of critically acclaimed tracks, with their Pet Sounds album (May, 1966) setting a high water mark for innovation and rock artistry – until Sgt. Pepper eclipsed every rock album ever made about a year later (June, 1967).

Watching Love & Mercy isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. Like most biopics, there is a calculated bias in favor of our hero (Wilson) who comes across as the victim of a self-absorbed and jealous father, and a sadistic psychotherapist. The acid-tongued father, played with an understated bite by Bill Camp, fails to recognize (much less acknowledge) his son’s creative genius. Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy makes a feast of the scenery as he unleashes his volcanic temper in one of the later scenes.

Overall, however, it’s his performance I can’t escape. Landy is a vile, sadistic creature . It seems, though, that Giamatti could have achieved an even more haunting performance by borrowing a bit more from the manipulative machinations of Machiavelli and a bit less from the overt evil of the Marquis de Sade. Like an unhinged gate, an unhinged character doesn’t move. The unhinging does it in.

This film, however, is not about subtleties. It’s visual/emotional palette is psychedelic and primary. With the exception of Wilson, most of the characters are flat, i.e., they don’t change. That’s not a bad thing in this film. Most of the characters in our dreams or in our memories tend to flatten into two-dimensional stereotypes. That’s what Love & Mercy is: an imperfectly remembered dream with studio music filling in the tatters.

Regarding the luminous Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter: in the beginning you may wonder, “what is she doing with this bozo?” (the chemically fried future Wilson as portrayed by John Cusack); however, you will leave in awe of her patience and her courage as she faces down the monstrous Landy.

If you grew up idolizing Mike Love (lead singer), get ready for a real downer of a reality check. If you loved the Boys’ music you may be a bit disappointed in the lack of polished production pieces that highlight their music. Instead, you’ll get a lot of studio work. More of a behind-the-scenes look at the emerging (& tortured) genius of Brian Wilson.

Is Love & Mercy worth $20 and two hours out of your life? It was for me. I left the theater grateful that I had a loving father who encouraged me, and hopeful that Brian and Melinda will one day find the good vibrations that reside in Christ alone.

 

Inside Out

3 Ways this Movie will Make Your Life Better

 

Inside Out, the latest release from Pixar, is a sensate delight.

STORYLINE: Eleven-year-old Riley is transplanted from her idyllic Midwestern home to chaotic San Francisco. Her loving mom and dad try to help her deal with her prepubescent emotions; Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and (her most important emotion) Joy.  But these are far from abstract emotions. They are personified as characters who disagree on how to deal with Riley’s dramatic change. This tension creates even more problems up in Headquarters, the central living area shared by the aforementioned emotions.

MORAL PREMISE: forcing joy into all of life’s situations will result in disappointment and frustration, but allowing room for sadness can lead to deeper joy.

MY TAKE: I’ll watch anything Peter Docter directs, and/or writes. In addition to his screenplay for Inside Out, and Up!, Docter has distinguished himself with original story credits on Toy Story (1 & 2), Monsters, Inc., WALL-E, Up!, and the forthcoming Toy Story 4. He never gets on a soapbox, never pontificates. Rather, he lets his characters discover the consequences of bad choices and the blessings of wise choices. The characters of Inside Out are so engaging, and the lessons learned are so rooted in truth, that we emerge with more than head knowledge regarding the wisdom of allowing room for sadness – we are moved, motivated to emulate the characters we have come to care for.

The actors do a great job. Thanks to Natalie Lyon and Kevin Reher for casting Amy Poehler (Joy) and Phyllis Smith (Sadness) as the two lead emotions. Both actors reveal nuanced vocal work that ably reflect those emotions. Their characters are rounded, that is, they have an arc, allowing for more variety and build in their interpretations. Casting Lewis Black as Anger was inspired – great performance. Mindy Kaling (Disgust) captures the edge and superiority with relish and without making us hate her, thanks largely to a great script. And Kaitlyn Dias as Riley does a masterful job of understating pre-teen angst without losing the volatility that accompanies her roiling emotions.

All the characters work together to complement the artistry of Dovi Anderson, Brendan Beasley and the rest of the animation crew, as well as a rich score that never intrudes (thanks, Peter Boyer, Ashley Chafin, et al), and a production design by Ralph Eggleston (Monsters, Inc., FernGully, The Last Rainforest, Up) that is one of the most imaginative and elegantly rendered of any animated feature that I’ve ever seen.

Any time Lauren and I turn to each other (multiple times) during the screening and say, “they are having so much fun!” I know we are witnessing something magical. That’s a word I seldom use, and more often than not, to describe a Pixar feature.

Here’s how it will make your life better:

1. It will encourage you to reconsider how better to deal with conflicting emotions in a high stress environment.

2. It will remind you that there really are families out there who put a premium on loving one another and helping one another through tough times.

3. It will entertain you in a wholesome way, that will leave you wanting to be a better person.

Go see Inside Out.

American Sniper

Review: American Sniper

Spoiler Alert – in case you don’t know how Chris Kyle’s story ends, read no further.

Feb. 12, 2013 – My wife and I were on our way from Dallas to our ranch in south Texas when we noticed people lining overpasses, waving American flags and hanging patriotic banners from the bridges. We were driving slightly ahead of the funeral procession for Chris Kyle, which stretched over 200 miles from Midlothian down to Austin. The presence of hundreds of admirers, many from out-of-state, bore poignant testimony to the impact of Kyle’s service to the nation as a Navy SEAL. Reported to be the most lethal sniper in American military history, he was credited for 160 kills (confirmed). The new film by director Clint Eastwood has garnered AA nominations for Bradley Cooper (Best Actor) and for Best Picture.

Performances – Bradley Cooper inhabits the role of Chris Kyle so effectively, that Kyle’s widow, Taya, said in a recent interview that, due to Cooper’s performance and the excellent work by scriptwriter Jason Hall, she felt that, “we had a really authentic film.” Trying to categorize Cooper’s performance is like trying to describe Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. It is so immersive, the viewer forgets every other role he has played, and loses himself in the moments Cooper so brilliantly recreates. Sienna Miller, who plays Kyle’s wife, Taya, is equally impressive as she navigates the minefield of emotions attendant to those whose loved ones serve in the military.

Production values – excellent re-creation of battle sequences make up the bulk of this 132 minute biographical war drama. The movie graphically represents the tensions that rise between Kyle and his bride as a result of his four tours.

My Take – if you are offended by continual, raw, vulgar language, this is definitely not the movie for you. Though Kyle carries a small Bible with him into battle, there is virtually no other reference to God (other than the cursing) in the movie. Of course, it isn’t possible for any 2-hour movie to reveal all there is to be known of a man, and Kyle may well have enjoyed a more vital spiritual life that the movie suggests. The overall impact of the movie is one of vaunting patriotism that is hard-won. Kyle’s enormous sacrifices were, according to the script, made out of gratitude for the USA, and his sense of duty to defend the “greatest country on earth.”

So, I’m torn. This finely directed movie, with such sharply defined characters and realistically rendered sequences, deserves all the plaudits that will surely come its way. And, of course, Kyle himself deserves our deep gratitude for his service. The message of the movie raises questions. Caveat – I offer this opinion as my reading of the movie’s message, and with deep appreciation for Kyle’s service to our country. American Sniper celebrates a life, which gave “the last full measure of devotion” in service to country. Kyle’s allegiance, as he says in the movie was to “God, country, family” – in that order, I believe – though there isn’t anything to suggest a distinction in Kyle’s mind between “God” and “country,” with “family” coming in a distant third. The first two – God and country – meld into a syncretistic jingoism that confuses, to me, at least, a sincere devotion to the USA and service to God.

Our allegiance as Christians must be to the Lord Jesus Christ, first and foremost. We certainly should honor our leaders and obey our government as it is established and sustained by the providence of the Lord, but we must never confuse our devotion to Him with our love of country.

Summary – This isn’t a popcorn movie. It’s designed as a gut punch that leaves you in awe of the power of cinema to evoke a visceral response. And, it invites us all to think – to consider where our ultimate allegiances lie, or should lie. And to emulate the passion and perseverance of Chris Kyle in the pursuit of a higher calling – our service in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.