Hank Hoffman’s Picks 12/1/15

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_WebTHE WAYS OF GENIUS

Mr. Turner (dir. Mike Leigh, 2014)
Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad, 2014)

No doubt the world is filled with well-adjusted geniuses. Creative masters who relate easily to those around them.

But, often, genius is as much burden as gift, both to the possessor and to those who come within his or her orbit.

Two wonderful movies released on DVD and Blu-Ray this year, LOVE AND MERCY and MR. TURNER, offer compelling depictions of mercurial artists wrestling both with their artistic visions and inner torments. As well, each film also presents superbly realized cinematic renditions of time and place.

Mr_TurnerBritish director Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” portrays the brilliant landscape and seascape painter J.M.W. Turner in the latter years of his life. (Many of Turner’s paintings are on view at the Yale Center for British Art.) Collegial and competitive with his peers in the Royal Academy, he can be irascible and withdrawn when with family and lovers. Actor Timothy Spall gives a powerful performance as Turner. At times, Spall’s Turner communicates in little more than snorts and grunts. But he can also be tender, forging a seemingly kind and affectionate long-term relationship in the final years of his life with the widow Mrs. Booth.

Turner lived from 1775 to 1851; Leigh’s film showcases a bustling early Victorian England in the accelerating grip of industrialization. In one scene, Turner paints a steam-spewing train in the proto-Impressionist “Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway.” As a painter, he faces the possibility of obsolescence in the face of the new medium of photography.

Light is the essence of photography and light was the essence of Turner’s paintings. Director Mike Leigh, through the beautiful cinematography of Dick Pope, allows us to see England as Turner saw and experienced it.

The quality of light is different but as integral in LOVE & MERCY, directed by Bill Pohlad. LOVE & MERCY tells the story of Brian Wilson, leader of—and songwriter for—The Beach Boys. In the early to mid-1960s, The Beach Boys’ music broadcast the myth and reality—mostly the former—of California sunshine to the world.

But it wasn’t all sunshine for Brian Wilson. Even without his ill-advised indulgence in LSD, Wilson—a victim of an extremely abusive father—still might have struggled with mental health issues. His musical vision  and experimentation with adventurous harmonies expanded the vocabulary of rock music. It also caused dissension within the group, particularly with singer—and cousin—Mike Love, who wanted Wilson to stick with the formula that had secured the group so many hits.

Love_MercyPohlad deftly tells two parallel stories—that of Wilson’s musical ascension and emotional collapse in the 1960s and that of his entrapment and control by therapist Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti) in the 1980s, from which Wilson was freed by the intervention of his future wife Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks).

The younger Wilson is played by Paul Dano; John Cusack plays the older Wilson. The fine performances by the two actors make the fact that they don’t look much like the same person at different ages irrelevant—they convey a consistent emotional inner life for the character that overrides the outer appearances.

While Wilson continues to perform to this day, his most creative songwriting is behind him. In LOVE & MERCY, Pohlad not only convincingly depicts a creative genius being overcome by his inner demons. He also convincingly recreates the creative milieu of the 1960s Los Angeles music scene and Wilson’s important role within it.

It wasn’t all “Fun, Fun, Fun.” But notwithstanding the anguish there were plenty of musical “Good Vibrations.”