Talking Movies

November 17, 2019

From the Archives: Into the Wild

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) drops out of Harvard Law School, without telling his family, to tramp the highways of America as an itinerant labourer before travelling to Alaska to live off the land.

Sean Penn’s fourth feature as director is as po-faced a bore as he is. Penn has absolutely no sense of humour, as his reaction to his caricaturing in Team America proved. He has stated that this film is “A call to the youth of America to explore their country and really live”. Into the Wild exhibits a deluded belief in the ‘rugged individualism’ preached by Theodore Roosevelt in the 1890s. Men with no ties, living off the land, fiercely independent, surviving alone in the rugged West, real men…with beards. It was fairly mythical then, and in the 1960s Hunter S Thompson sought out these deluded Henry Thoreau wannabes who wanted to commune with nature. He found only broken old men and naïve youngsters from the East Coast, with no skills. Penn in 2007 is hilariously presenting this as a positive option. Christopher McCandless’s real-life odyssey was insane in 1990 and it’s only gotten more ridiculous since as all jobs for the unskilled have dried up.

Vince Vaughn, who is surprisingly good in his cameo, is the voice of sanity in this piece! He contradicts the dribbling condemnation of American society offered by Emile Hirsch as his reason for leaving his identity of Christopher McCandless behind and becoming ‘Alexander Supertramp’. ‘Alex’ sounds like a stoned hippie whenever he tries to explain why he’s choosing a life of homelessness. It is that ridiculous. Penn depicts Bush Sr on TV justifying the Gulf War, in a soundbite carefully chosen for its eerie resemblance to Bush Jr’s justifications of the current Iraq mess. But Penn uses it to justify Alex’s illegal border-hopping to continue his tramping. For such a political activist to suggest dropping out of engagement with society and retreating to nature as the paradigm for America’s youth is baffling.

This film is pretentiously divided into chapters, while Alex quotes 19th century books endlessly rather than think for himself. For those who like clichés Alex kayaks down the Rio Grande and meets a Danish girl who instantly takes her top off. Ah, those wacky Europeans. In a later chapter he teams up with Kristen Stewart for a Bob Dylan/Joan Baez style musical relationship. Hal Holbrook is on fine form as the wise old man in the final ‘chapter’ titled ‘The Getting of Wisdom’, but it is screamingly obvious that Alex never even develops common sense. Vegetarians will not be the only ones traumatised by a graphic scene in which he kills and guts a moose. A magnificent animal is being sacrificed to sustain a pretentious, incredibly narcissistic twit who deserves his inevitable death which comes about as a result of his own idiocy. The one star is for a few good supporting turns and the undeniably gorgeous scenery.

1/5

October 31, 2013

Philomena

Steve Coogan co-writes, produces and stars opposite Judi Dench in a tale of investigative journalism based on a true story.

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Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is a Labour spin-doctor shafted when his well intentioned but unfortunately phrased email becomes the object of media hysteria. Moping around, pitching a book on Russian history, the former journalist is approached at a party by waitress Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Jane’s Irish mother Philomena (Judi Dench) has just disclosed she had another child, a son; who was forcibly given up for adoption decades before while in a Magdalene laundry. Initially disinterested, Sixsmith pitches the story to hard-bitten magazine editor Sally (Michelle Fairley), and, commissioned, meets with Philomena. The unlikely duo set off on a road trip, first to the convent in Roscrea where Cathy Belton’s nun informs them all paperwork was lost in a fire, and that Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is too ill to help them, and eventually to America to find lost child Anthony.

Coogan’s script has been acclaimed, but the Oxbridge educated Sixsmith’s consistent patronising of the ‘Daily Mail and romance novel reading’ retired nurse Philomena is actually rather uncomfortable viewing. His opening quip on leaving a carol service early, “I don’t believe in God, and I think He can tell”, recalls Woody Allen’s “To you I’m an atheist, to God I’m the loyal opposition”, but this script lacks the philosophical engagement of Allen’s most thoughtful works. It is instead largely devoted to bashing the Catholic Church without much reflection. Stephen Frears’ anonymous direction seems to display the effect of four centuries of Anti-Catholic propaganda in England as the camera almost regards pre-Vatican II clerical garb as a cinematic shorthand for evil akin to SS uniforms when depicting the laundry; which the girls could leave at any time if their families wished it.

Hillsborough shows that cover-ups are endemic to institutions, secular as much as religious, which protect their prestige at the expense of innocent victims. Mitt Romney, in his capacity as a LDS Church Bishop, was trying to persuade single mothers to give up their children for adoption well into the 1980s. But acknowledging those truths make Catholicism less exceptional… The American sequence is startling for the dramatic nuances forsaken. Philomena’s son did have a better life there than she could have given him, but he was made to feel shame for his ‘sin’ in America as much as his mother was for hers in Ireland, because of the Evangelical Protestantism that swept Reagan and the Bushes to political power. When the film returns to Roscrea, it seems relieved such knotty ambiguities can be replaced by Catholic-bashing.

Philomena excoriates people for applying their shibboleths without empathy, yet, by condemning people for not applying current shibboleths in the past, itself disdains attempting to understand why those people acted as they did – comprehension is not forgiveness, but empathy.

2/5

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