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Non-Review Review: Love and Mercy

The music biography is a surprisingly familiar genre.

For all that there are thousands upon thousands of musicians with their own life stories and histories, the plotting of these sorts of stories always seems to hit on the same beats. The rhythm and tempo might change, but the notes feel the same. This was rather strongly pronounced a decade ago, when Walk the Line and Ray were released in quick succession and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story provided a delightfully surreal skewering of the conventions associated with these sorts of films.

Where there's a Wilson, there's a way, son...

Where there’s a Wilson, there’s a way, son…

There is always a childhood trauma at the root of the story; whether it is a dead relative or parental abuse, there is always a suitable motivator for artistic expression. Similarly, fame is always something of a mixed blessing, with material success only serving to exaggerate a larger spiritual emptiness. Dependencies come rather naturally, whether on drugs or on other people. Eventually, it seems like true love allows our protagonist to find themselves before they find their happy ending. Having a ready-made (and thematically appropriate) soundtrack probably helps.

In most cases, the material is elevated by the skill with which the story is put together. If the film must hit all those familiar notes, then the moving parts make all the difference. Walk the Line and Ray were buoyed by mesmerising central performances from actors at the peak of their game. Love and Mercy hits a lot of these common plot beats as it maps out the troubled life of Brian Wilson. Even a viewer unfamiliar with the arc of Wilson’s life will have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the film.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

At the same time, Love and Mercy benefits from a collection of strong performances. Paul Dano and John Cusack play the musician at various stages of his life, jumping back and forth between his controversy-creating career highs and subsequent lows. The bulk of the supporting cast is teamed up with Cusack, creating an interesting circle of characters around Wilson in the late eighties and into the nineties. Elizabeth Banks is Melinda Ledbetter, a Cadillac saleswoman who gets caught up with Wilson. Paul Giammatti is controversial psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy.

Love & Mercy is at its best when it feels playful and accessible, and is at its worst when it feels familiar and well-trodden. It is a fascinating sketch at the life and times of Brian Wilson, with a recognisable structure elevated by a great ensemble.

Pet sounds...

Pet sounds…

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Non-Review Review: Maps to the Stars

It is a cliché to suggest that Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood.

Sure, quite often these are celebratory meditations on how great Tinseltown is – Argo was the story of how Hollywood saved the lives of Americans caught up in the Iranian Revolution; Hitchcock celebrated the making of Psycho. Sometimes these are more cynical and jaded explorations of how Hollywood works, seeking to expose the community’s seedy underbelly to the world – Robert Altman’s The Player remains the definitive example, but films like What Just Happened probably count as well.

These stock Hollywood-story-about-Hollywood are the weakest aspects of Maps to the Stars. The movie often feels like it’s trying too hard to add a surface gloss of what people expect from a film about Hollywood, on top of a much more interesting and compelling tale of dysfunction and decay. Maps to the Stars is held together by a rake of terrific performances and a wonderfully creepy central metaphor, but it feels let down by the more superficial elements of the script.

We're all in the gutter...

We’re all in the gutter…

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Non-Review Review: The Frozen Ground

Despite strong central performances and a firm directorial hand, The Frozen Ground never quite manages to find its footing. Part se7en, part secondary school civics lesson, The Frozen Ground suffers from a ham-fisted script which feels the need to constantly remind the audience about how terrible the whole situation is. Characters don’t deliver dialogue so much as thematic statements, with the script playing out as an over-extended advertisement for a women-in-trouble charity.

The issues raised by The Frozen Ground about how society treats the abused and the dispossessed are definitely worth talking about. The film makes a lot of poignant criticisms about how the opinions and experiences of a certain class of women are conveniently dismissed and overlooked by those in positions of authority. The problem is that the script is far too earnest about such matters, as if afraid that the audience might be unable to grasp the exploitation of these women unless it is pointed out repeatedly and awkwardly.

It’s less of a film, and more of a blunt mission statement. Less of a story and more of a bleak public service announcement. Which is a shame, because John Cusack is legitimately great here, and Nicolas Cage and Vanessa Hudgens do the best they can with the material afforded to them.

Feeling quite Cage-y on the subject...

Feeling quite Cage-y on the subject…

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Non-Review Review: The Raven

The Raven is one of those concepts that might have been interesting to follow from the pitch phase. It seems almost impossible that anybody thought the movie, in the condition that it was released, was a good idea – so I’m curious at how various people were convinced to sign on and to help shepherd it to the screen. Of course, my inner cynic suggests that money was a prime motivating factor, but it’s very hard to imagine anybody being convinced that “Edgar Allan Poe lives through se7en in 1849 Baltimore” would prove the basis of a massive cash windfall.

There must have been something of interest here, something worthy of attention at some point in the process, rather than just the half-hearted attempt to knock-off one of those nineties serial killer knock-offs with a slight change of scenery.

A shadowy figure...

A shadowy figure…

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Non-Review Review: Hot Tub Time Machine

I remember being assured by somebody that pop culture will eat itself. I’m not sure who and I’m not sure when (maybe this person had a time a machine – because it seems to be happening). I never understood if that was a promise or a threat, and I still don’t. However, if you wanted to get a look at the below of the beast, I imagine it might look a little like Hot Tub Time Machine.

Rubba dub dub, four men in tub...

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