On this week in home video, we have a Brian Wilson biopic, the seventh movie in an improbably long-lasting franchise, an adaptation of a classic fairy tale, a heroin indie drama, and much more. Let’s kick things off with Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy” which focuses on the life of Brian Wilson at two key periods in his life: the first in the 1960’s when he was creating “Pet Sounds” whilst losing his grip on reality, and the second in the 1980’s when he’s under the psychological and legal stranglehold of crooked therapist Dr. Eugene Landy. Paul Dano and John Cusack plays the ’60s and ’80s Brian Wilson respectively as he struggles with his own psychological demons while trying to convey his artistic ambitions to the world. In the ’60’s timeline, Jake Abel plays Mike Love, Kenny Wormald and Brett Davern plays Dennis and Carl Wilson respectively; in the ’80’s timeline, Paul Giamatti plays Dr. Eugene Landy and Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, Wilson’s future wife. “Love & Mercy” has a little bit more spark of life than the average biopic, but still often falls into standard genre traps, like rendering its protagonist an abstract figure rather than a real person (more so in ’60’s sections than the ’80’s sections), and Giamatti’s performance comes off a little bit histrionic, even if the real Eugene Landy himself was histrionic as well. (For more specific thoughts on the film, here’s Criticwire’s post on the protagonist problems in “Love & Mercy.”)
Other new releases this week include “Furious Seven,” the seventh installment in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise. Starring Vin Diesel and the late Paul Walker, the film follows the continuing adventures of Dominic Toretto and Brian O’Conner and the rest of the team as they try to live normal lives in the United States after securing amnesty for their past crimes, until Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a rogue special forces assassin, places them in danger one more time. Next, there’s Kenneth Branagh’s familiar yet ill-conceived adaptation of “Cinderella,” starring Lily James as Ella (“Cinderella”) and Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine (“the Wicked Stepmother”). Then, there’s Ben and Joshua Safdie’s acclaimed indie drama “Heaven Knows What” starring Arielle Holmes based on her unpublished memoir of her life as a homeless heroin addict living in New York. Finally, there’s “Reality,” the French-Belgian dramedy directed by Quentin Dupiex (or Mr. Oizo, if you’d prefer to refer to him by his electronic musician pseudonym) and starring Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”) and Eric Wareheim (“Tim and Eric Awesome Show”).
On the Classic beat, Shout! Factory has Edward Dmytryk’s “Murder, My Sweet,” based on Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely,” and considered one of the best adaptations of Chandler’s work. The film stars Dick Powell as Chandler protagonist Philip Marlowe (a unique choice seeing as Powell was best known for comedies and musicals up to that point), and Claire Trevor as the mysterious Helen who’s hiding more than she lets on. Finally, Criterion has Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1981 film “Blind Chance,” about a medical student (Boguslaw Linda) as he tries to navigate an uncertain future in Communist Poland; Kieślowski presents his journey as a series of different possibilities and paths, implying that our lives are ruled by chance as much as choice.
Keith Phipps, The Dissolve
Pohlad doesn’t always sidestep the usual problems of musical biopics. A lot of exposition gets shoved into dialogue — as when a band member tells a room full of people who would already know that “Pet Sounds” didn’t sell that well in America, but did well in England — and both Murry Wilson and Landy are portrayed as villains with no redeeming qualities. Giamatti’s performance is unexpectedly unshaded, which might be true to the real Landy — a shameless self-promoter with no sense of boundaries — but it still occasionally tips the film into melodrama. But the film also gets a lot right, particularly in the long stretches dedicated to the recording of “Pet Sounds” and “Smile.” These capture both the intricacy of music so groundbreaking it could throw the conservatory-trained pros of the Wrecking Crew for a loop, and the joy Wilson takes in recording it. Dano bounces from the pleasure of hearing the sounds that had previously been confined to his head make their way into the world, and for a moment, every other worry falls away. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B
Sean Burns, Spliced Personality
I dig these movies. (Though I think we can all still agree the second one is terrible, no?) I dig the way screenwriter Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin took over during the third installment, rebuilding Universal’s silly little franchise cast-off into a sprawling, multicultural crime saga fashioned after 1980’s Hong Kong pictures, keying up the maudlin melodrama to match the outsized action while retconning an increasingly insane mythology as the movies grew more successful and budgets blossomed accordingly. They’re corny, adorable and spectacular. “Fast Five” was the high water mark, remaining to this day the best John Woo movie John Woo never made. “Fast & Furious 6” was an exercise in escalation, stretching the gargantuan set-pieces (motherfucking tank chase!) and the soap opera flourishes (Letty isn’t dead, she just had amnesia!) to one slight millimeter shy of the breaking point. It was as earnest as it was absurd, and a good time was had by all. “Furious 7” is where it breaks. I hate to sound like a spoil-sport because the film was finished under conditions most would probably find impossible. For starters, Lin split the series and went off to go make “Star Trek 3,” replaced here by “The Conjuring” director James Wan, who has a handle on the nuts and bolts of craft but lacks his predecessor’s goony exuberance. Read more.
Criticwire Average: B
Gregory Ellwood, HitFix
Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz make some interesting choices at this point in the story and throughout, for that matter. Blanchett plays the classic wicked stepmother with a wonderful Joan Crawford inspired facade, but they intentionally make her character less sympathetic than you might expect. Our understanding of the Lady’s motives are communicated in one telegraphed scene where she overhears Ella and her father discussing their love for her departed mother and how they see her in their home, which Tremaine now lives in, every day. This would potentially hurt anyone and it”s just enough to plant the seed of resentment between Ella and her new Stepmother. When Ella’s father passes away during a long business trip, our heroine’s situation becomes increasingly dire. Lady Tremaine certainly becomes increasingly manipulative, but her actions aren’t over her dislike of Ella as a person. Instead, it’s the frustration and burden of becoming potentially destitute with the death of yet another husband. The filmmakers could have expanded on this, but that might have made it just a smidgen too real. They don’t want the audience to forget they’re watching a fairy tale and want to keep things just fantastical enough for hope to live behind every corner (or almost talking mouse). Read more.
“Heaven Knows What”
Criticwire Average: B+
Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club
One junkie story tends to be much like another, so give brothers Josh and Benny Safdie credit for crafting one that’s genuinely distinctive. Part of that stems from the quasi-documentary nature of the project: While researching a different movie in New York’s Diamond District, the Safdie’s encountered a young recovering heroin addict named Arielle Holmes and were so taken with her that they encouraged her to write about her experiences. “Mad Love In New York City,” the resulting memoir (largely composed in an Apple store!), hasn’t been published. But the Safdies went ahead and adapted it into a film, casting Holmes in the lead role, as a version of herself. It was a risky gambit that paid off handsomely, as her live-wire performance (opposite one professional actor and a lot of other non-pros) gives “Heaven Knows What” an electrifying immediacy that sets it apart from the usual cycle of stealing, scoring, and fixing. And the real-life aspect has been supplemented by aggressively formalist technique, lending it still more power. Read more.