Love and Mercy movie review

Featuring: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti
Director: Bill Pohlad
Writers: Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 25 Jun

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A beautifully managed, wonderfully performed and moving biopic. A must-see for Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans.

I’m generally luke-warm about biopics, especially those on revered pop and rock musicians (trace that back to the buffoonish depiction of Jim Morrison by Val Kilmer at the direction of a clueless Oliver Stone in his unintended parody, The Doors). Thus, I approached this portraiture of Brian Wilson, who for me is one of the truly great songwriter/arrangers of the 60s, with trepidation.

No need, as it turns out. This is a terrific flick that pays due but not sycophantic homage to Wilson’s artistic achievements and provides marvellous insight into the fascinating and whacko creative processes that yielded his best work circa the landmark Pet Sounds masterpiece (and, of course, the legendary Smile album follow-up, still one of rock’s fabled lost treasures, despite Wilson’s unfortunate latter-day release of a recreated and inevitably disappointing version).

That comes across as a description of a doco rather than a biopic, but the best part of this always riveting movie really is the marvellously authentic-feeling depiction of Wilson’s Pet Sounds studio sessions working with crack hired session musos (later known collectively as The Wrecking Crew, and acknowledged as the hitmakers behind the scenes on so many classic 60s records). While the other members of the Beach Boys watch on, some with growing frustration and impatience at being denied an opportunity to participate musically, Brian directs and pushes the expert hired help to coax into reality the sounds and musical ideas in his head. As those gorgeous and oh-so-familiar songs come together, sounds, layers and textures are revealed in stunning clarity absent from the soft-focus mix of the commercially available vinyl product and the later digital remasters. No Beach Boys fan will want to miss this. It’s nothing short of revelatory.

That music-centred rave aside, the film also works extremely well dramatically, partly due to the wise decision to cover only two periods of Wilson’s life – his creative peak around 1967, when in his twenties he shunned the stage limelight to focus on songwriting, and his painful journey out of darkness, mental collapse and exploitation two decades later. The intervening years, during which he was in a sorry state, are only alluded to – a narratively economical and canny strategy.

Paul Dano plays the young Wilson and John Cusack takes on the middle-aged role. Both are convincing. Dano is a dead ringer for 60s era Wilson, but Cusack looks nothing like the older version in real life. While this is initially jarring, Cusack’s depiction seamlessly melds with Dano’s and the appearance discrepancy soon fades into insignificance. That is a tribute to both performers, who combine to bring the Wilson character to life, not as a 60s icon, but as a man whose life has turned tragic, and who struggles with the damage inflicted on him by a physically and mentally abusive father.

This sad family history makes Wilson ripe pickings for tyrannically controlling and self-serving Machiavellian shrink, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who overmedicates his “patient” and watches his every move, pulling his strings like an evil puppeteer. Wilson’s chance meeting with empathic car salesperson Melinda (played with poise and suss by Elizabeth Banks), who was to become his second wife, leads to an unlikely friendship, then love, and paves the way for his breaking out of his cage of oppression. Melinda’s facing down of Landy towards the end of the film is the dramatic high point. Who doesn’t love to see a bully get his comeuppance?

This is a beautifully managed, wonderfully performed and moving flick about a damaged and gifted person who finds a way back from the hell of mental disintegration to liberation and redemption through the support and love of a good woman (don’t smirk – that’s how it is, and you’ll buy it as I did!). Highly recommended, and for Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans an absolute must-see.

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Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago movie review

Featuring: Annie, Jack and Wayne, Misa, Sam, Tomás, Tatiana and other “pilgrims”
Director: Lydia B. Smith
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 11 Jun

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: An absorbing, well shot and often moving doco tracking the progress of 6 “pilgrims” walking Spain’s 500km Camino de Santiago.

This absorbing documentary tracks the progress of 6 trekkers of disparate backgrounds, ages and nationalities as they walk in the footsteps of centuries of pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient route stretching 500km westward across Spain and terminating at the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Not all the walkers are on a “pilgrimage”. Tomás, for example, sees the Camino as a bit of a lark. A fit-looking, affable Portuguese bloke in his thirties, he is out for fun, companionship and adventure, having whimsically chosen the trek over learning kite-surfing. Middle-aged LA resident Anne, by contrast, is serious-minded, values her solitude and declares that she is on a spiritual quest, but finds her body jeopardising her mission. An elderly Canadian gentleman doing the walk with his mate hopes to reconcile himself to the death of his wife and enter a new stage of life. Then there is a warring French brother and sister, she deeply religious, he an atheist and iconoclast who takes nothing seriously (except, perhaps, Che Guevara). She is resentful that her young son, whom she pushes along in a stroller, appears to be idolising her bro and prone to his subversive influence.

The walkers start as individuals but become a community, united by the Camino experience. Whatever their initial attitudes and motivations, they find themselves on an unpredictably life-changing inner journey as well as being physically challenged by the rigours and discomforts of the walk. There is the changeable weather, aches and pains from joints unused to long days of negotiating rough paths through mountainous terrain, blisters on the feet, dorm accommodation and the inevitable disharmonious nocturnal chorus of snorers…

The film flits between the subjects, giving the impression that they are all tackling the epic walk at the same time, although few have any direct interaction with each other. While their stories are interesting and their moments of self-revelation often moving, the filmmaker doesn’t push through into deeply personal or uncomfortable territory. The piece would have benefited from a bit of edge.

That said, it works well as a travelogue, and the trek throws up some nice insights (eg: “What’s bad for the ego is good for the soul”). There are some magnificent, sweeping panoramas of the often stunning countryside, and some scenes inside the pubs and sleeping quarters that service the walkers along the way. Anyone interested in walking the Camino will get a good idea of what to expect – far better than afforded by Emilio Estevez’s insubstantial and rather contrived fictional feature film of 2012, The Way, which put the Camino on the public radar.

Prospective pilgrims should note that promo campaigns and the Hollywood spotlight have diminished the exclusivity and bragging rights of “doing the Camino”. It’s now very much a Thing. In 1986, 2500 walkers completed the trek – around 238,000 did it in 2014. Better make sure you book your dorms well in advance.

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Partisan movie review

Featuring: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel
Director: Ariel Kleiman
Writers: Sarah Cyngler, Ariel Kleiman
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 28 May, 2015

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A compelling expression of controlled rage at tyrannical abuse of power and corruption of innocents.

This audaciously impressive off-the-edge feature film debut from Australian director Ariel Kleiman drops the viewer smack into the perplexing insular world of a weird, dilapidated hidden commune. No clue is given to its location, and to add to the sense of geographical confusion, the characters speak with a mix of accents, predominantly French. The place has the appearance of an abandoned apartment complex. It is cut off from the outside world, access being via a series of concrete tunnels and shafts with secret entrances unconvincingly camouflaged. In the distance is a shitty-looking town, basically a gathering of grim high-rise apartment blocks. It’s a strange, logic-defying, disorientating set-up, post-apocalyptic in feel, and never explained.

With exposition kept to a minimum throughout, we learn via the natural unfolding of events that the patriarch of the commune, Gregori (Vincent Cassel), leads a commune of mothers he has recruited from oppressed, miserable lives. He has raised their children as his own virtually from birth, moulding them in service of his utopian vision, which is not elaborated upon. Some might find this avoidance of ideological detail frustrating, but in effect, Kleiman is shrewdly refusing to be pinned down by any real-world allusion; he is depicting an everyman cultist micro-society. The point is that regardless of the brand of “utopia”, all cultist organisations normalise the abnormal, working through a power structure that assigns the leader God-like status while necessarily subjugating his/her followers, and demonising all challengers (including, of course, the entire world outside the cult).

Thus, Gregori casts all outsiders as evil threats to the sanctuary of the commune. He teaches the kids to read and write, grow their own vegetables, raise poultry – and assassinate nominated targets in the nearby town for reasons that are not divulged.

The star assassin is Gregori’s favourite “son”, Alexander (played by Jeremy Chabriel, who puts in an arresting performance). About eleven years of age, he carries out his murderous missions with chilling efficiency, unaffected emotionally, unquestioning of Gregori’s orders… until something happens that undermines his trust and resurrects the compassion that has been conditioned out of him. Blind faith turns to doubt, and Alexander begins to challenge Gregori’s authority. The stage is set for a once-impossible showdown that can have only one winner – and that features a stunning and profoundly articulate image of Alexander brandishing a gun while holding his baby half-brother, whom he has fitted with ear protection (there is genius in that detail).

Partisan works as a tense, whacked out thriller, but it is more than that. It is a compelling expression of controlled rage at the tyrannical abuse of power and corruption of innocents that is at the core of any and every tyrant-led organisation, whether that be a family with a despot at its head, a criminal organisation, a religious order, a totalitarian state, or terrorist scourges like ISIS. Mark down Ariel Kleiman as a writer/director to watch. He’s an exciting prospect.

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Ex Machina movie review

Featuring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 7 May, 2015

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Gripping and discussion-provoking sci-fi driven by thought rather than action, and no less entertaining for that.

When whizz computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a prize comprising a week in a remote Alaskan lab assessing the results of his mega-wealthy boss Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) artificial intelligence experiments, he is understandby elated. Turns out Nathan is an enigmatic mix, on one hand an eccentric tech genius, on the other a hard-drinking gym-junkie whose buddy-buddy manner jars with the sense that something dark and vaguely threatening lurks beneath – as evidenced by his callous attitude towards his non-English-speaking Japanese maid cum sex slave. Caleb doesn’t know what to make of him or his hi-tech hideaway, which offers luxurious accommodation and facilities, yet feels increasingly like a prison. Continue reading

Clouds of Sils Maria movie review

Featuring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
Director: Oliver Assayas
Writer: Oliver Assayas
Movie website:
Australian release date: Thu 7 May, 2015

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Slow-moving, dialogue-driven, intense and sometimes oblique, this accomplished piece of filmmaking offers reward for effort for those prepared to take the film on its own terms.

This new work from French auteur Oliver Assayas focuses on the mercurial relationship between an acclaimed middle-aged actor (Juliette Binoche) and her young live-in publicist (Kristen Stewart). It is slow-moving, dialogue-driven, intense and sometimes oblique – quintessentially Euro ‘arthouse’, in other words. Patience and concentration is required of the viewer, then, but there is reward for effort for those prepared to take the film on its own terms. Continue reading