Before memories of the summer just past fade, here are capsule reviews of a dozen films we saw and, to a greater or lesser extent, appreciated.
“Love and Mercy” – Directed by Bill Pohlad (screenplay by Michael Alan Lerner from his book), this film tells the redemptive story of Brian Wilson, the legendary leader of the Beach Boys. It stars Paul Dano as the young Wilson, and John Cusack, as the older Wilson, with strong performances from them and Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti. As a bio-pic, the film is somewhat unique and well-crafted, and you can’t knock the music, of which we wished there had been more. (Three and a half cheers from us, out of a possible four.)
“Me and Earl and a Dying Girl” – Jesse Andrews wrote the screenplay from his novel for this mildly diverting coming-of-age tale about a teen and his two close friends. (Yes, the title is the storyline.) Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rajon, the film is light in tone despite its heavy subject matter, which made it less soap-sudsy than it might have otherwise have been. In the end, though, it was perhaps a tad too saccharine for our tastes. (Two and a half cheers.)
“Amy” – This documentary about the supremely talented Amy Winehouse, directed by Asif Kapadia, left little to the imagination in terms of her descent into alcohol-induced death. If it was starkly depressing, it may also have been slightly overdone (as in overlong and overly fixated on her demise). In the end, we found it not all that compelling. (Two cheers.)
“Testament of Youth” – Based on the mammoth memoir by Vera Brittain of her years as a young war nurse during World War I, the film (directed by James Kent; screenplay by Juliette Towhidi) is perhaps too long and too talky, but it is also a powerful indictment of the lunacy of war and a gripping tale of lost innocence. Alicia Vikander gives a powerful performance as the young Brittain. (Four cheers.)
“Irrational Man” – Woody Allen’s latest is a bit of a replay of two of his far superior films (“Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point”) with only the ending something of a surprise. Joaquin Phoenix seemed ill-suited for the metaphysically conflicted English professor, and his romance with his student (Emma Stone) lacked chemistry, making the central premise of the tale even less plausible. (Two cheers.)
“Inside Out” – This Pixar produced animation (co-written and directed by Pete Docter) tells of a young girl whose mind is consumed by five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust), all of which are ingeniously envisioned and developed in a wild tale that is both fascinating and profound. It was great entertainment for young and old alike, right down to the exceedingly clever closing credits. (Four cheers.)
“Trainwreck” – Comedienne Amy Schumer wrote and stars in this Judd Apatow-directed rom-com, which would be pretty forgettable as films in that genre go were they not all so easily considered. The premise of this one is built out of the early scene where Schumer’s character as a child is told by her philandering father that monogamy is unnatural. The movie projects what that kind of imprinting can do to a girl. (Two cheers.)
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl” – The girl in the title (script by Marielle Heller, who also directed, from a book by Phoebe Gloeckner) is fifteen when she starts an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. Things go downhill from there, since he’s a creep (or pedophile, take your choice). Suffice it to say, this is not a pleasant film. Some found it important. We didn’t. (One cheer.)
“Mistress America” – Written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig (directed by him; co-starring her), this comedy has one very funny extended scene with multiple characters. Otherwise, it focuses on a young woman (well-played by Lola Kirke) befriended by Ms. Gerwig’s older character. The film is mildly interesting as a kind of coming-of-age tale, albeit the script lacks clarity at times regarding the friendship and its consequences. (Two and a half cheers.)
“Meru” – This amazing documentary, co-directed by Jimmy Chin and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, shows the ascent by Mr. Chin and his two colleagues to the top of Meru mountain in the Indian Himalayas. If only for its scenic beauty and grandeur the film is noteworthy, but in capturing the climbers’ actual feat of reaching the peak (via the 4,000-foot wall known as the “Shark’s Fin), the film is inspirational. (Four cheers.)
“Learning to Drive” – Ben Kingsley co-stars as a cab driver who is an observant Sikh who moonlights as a driving instructor in this small film about cross-cultural friendship. The friendship Kingsley’s character develops is with an upper-middle-class New York City author, played by Patricia Clarkson, so it is clear they initially have very little in common. Instead of taking a predictable turn, the film (directed by Isabel Coixet from Sarah Kernochan’s script) stays true to its theme, which, while perhaps somewhat bland, still needs to be stated every so often. (Three cheers.)
Of these dozen films, most are now available in DVDs or will be soon. Some are still in theaters, soon to give way to the fall releases.