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

January 24, 2013

Lincoln

Spielberg’s long-gestating biopic depicts Daniel Day-Lewis’ Honest Abe trying  to force thru the lame-duck House of Representatives a constitutional amendment  outlawing slavery.

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Lincoln insists the outgoing House pass it by the month’s end as these  unseated Democrats have nothing to lose, and because, thanks to facilitation by  Lincoln’s Republican Party elder Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), the Confederacy  (represented by Jackie Earle Haley’s VP) are ready to negotiate an end to the  Civil War. Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) values such a peace  above Lincoln’s amendment but agrees to fund three political fixers (James  Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) in their attempt to secure the necessary  Democrat votes, even as Secretary of War Stanton (Bruce McGill) bludgeons the  South with a vicious naval assault on Wilmington to hasten the end of the war.  Meanwhile Lincoln has to contend with his estranged son Robert (Joseph  Gordon-Levitt) and long-suffering wife Mary (Sally Field) as much as radical  abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones).

Spielberg’s Lincoln is an incessant raconteur so it’s fitting that Lincoln made me think of Groucho Marx’s  anecdote of the lousy film producer nobody could bring themselves to fire  because he so reminded them of Lincoln. Lincoln is awash with familiar faces; Abe  can’t send a telegram without falling over a Girls star, Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan pop up  just to recite his Gettysburg Address to him. And a great dignity falls over  all, from those who signed up for trivial parts because it was a film about the  Great Liberator, to Steven Spielberg directing with reverent anonymity, to DP  Janusz Kaminski reining himself in to the occasional lens flare and a muted  lighting scheme. Day-Lewis’ affected gait and high-pitched voice attempts to  humanise the legend but inevitably and unfortunately recalls Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place.

Tony Kushner’s desperately unfocused script clamours for a Sorkin rewrite.  Despite establishing a ticking clock there is no sense of urgency until, with 4 days left to  the vote, Lincoln descends from Olympus to cajole Democrats. There are great  scenes: Lincoln explaining to his Cabinet with characteristic intricacy the  legal dubiousness of his Emancipation Proclamation, arguing with Stevens over  the necessity for compromise, and discoursing on Euclid and thus changing his  own mind about negotiating a peace. But, while the under-used fixers amuse, we  flail in uninteresting Congressional debates or Lincoln’s wonted quoting of  Shakespeare. JGL is wasted in a storyline which stunningly never addresses how  much affection Lincoln showers on his private secretary, Johnny. Johnny being  John Hay, who was Secretary of State to Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Such  was the valuable mentoring that Lincoln denied his own son…

And there’s Sally Field’s Mary  Todd Lincoln by way of Brothers &  Sisters… She nicely upbraids Stevens, but, her hysterical grief is so  histrionic in a scene with Abe, Day-Lewis’ gestures so theatrical, and  Spielberg’s shot-selection so disconcertingly low-angle, that you half-expect  the camera to edge back an inch and reveal a proscenium arch. Such theatricality  gives us Lincoln’s ridiculous final line, leaving Seward to stomp off for his  fatal engagement at Ford’s Theatre – “I suppose I should be going, but I would  rather stay”. Like every Spielberg flick this century this film misses a good  ending and needlessly keeps going and going, and even bafflingly resurrects  Lincoln to deliver the Second Inaugural. John  Adams is the gold standard that Lincoln had to equal to prove cinema could best TV for intelligent historical  drama of ideas. Lincoln falls  short…

This is a handsomely mounted tilt  at a worthy, important subject; assuming, as the Oscars do, that important  subjects rather than great scripts generate epochal films. To give Lincoln the  verdict, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing  they like.”

2.5/5

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