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

May 31, 2018

From the Archives: Speed Racer

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings up a justly forgotten disaster from the Brothers Wachowski, hammering home the lightning in a bottle good fortune of The Matrix.

Speed Racer is meant to be a family friendly CGI heavy summer blockbuster. It is however incredibly bizarre, and also camp, if we use feminist critic Susan Sontag’s definition that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”. There are scenes in Speed Racer that will make you want to bound out of the cinema as characters dressed in day-glo colours stand around beside hideously fake CGI backgrounds before getting into garish CGI cars. Kym Barrett, costume designer for Baz Luhrmann’s camp classics, designed the clothes but the Wachowskis don’t seem to have realised that they’ve ordered up the décor for a different film than the one they think they’re making.

The young (and implausibly named) Speed Racer idolises his dead racing driver brother Rex and grows up to emulate him as the flashback heavy opening action sequence pithily explains. Into the Wild star Emile Hirsch plays the adult Speed, who must be one of the blandest heroes to grace the screen this decade. Indie queen Christina Ricci’s presence in the film as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie is equally baffling. Sure she eventually gets to drive, pilot a helicopter and do kung-fu but it’s not like this script could have been confused with Bound when it arrived in her post-box. The Wachowskis are trying so hard here to make a kid’s film (Look at the monkey! Look at the silly little monkey!) that they seem to forget where their own strengths actually lie, while one must question the grotesque scene involving fingers being eaten by piranhas as being radically unacceptable for a kid’s film.

The film comes alive only in a very silly Matrix parody kung-fu fight. It is a merciful respite from the choppily edited incoherent CGI action which quickly becomes quite gruelling, you realise with horror halfway through the endless desert rally that this is only the second act and that there’s still a third act epic Grand Prix to go. Surprisingly (I say this as someone who always rooted for Locke against Jack) LOST star Matthew Fox is the best thing about Speed Racer. Fox is really enjoying playing the menacing, mysterious and masked Racer X. He is operating at a very high level of fun indeed for it to be obvious in such a taciturn role that he is Fassbendering his way through the movie. Yes, that’s a word, now. To Fassbender: to very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work. See Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who spends the entirety of 300 grinning like an idiot.

Why the Wachowskis chose to bother with live action rather than a purely animated adaptation of the 1960s Japanese TV cartoon will forever puzzle. They will never lose one element of their craft though as Speed Racer has 2008’s most insanely euphoric finale.

2/5

January 15, 2015

Wild

Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Coast Trail solo in the mid-90s to find herself, now Reese Witherspoon hikes it cinematically in search of another Oscar.FOX_3558.psd

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), an ex-junkie recently divorced from patient husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), sets out to walk from California to Washington State, a distance of over 1,000 miles – solo. As she walks she’s aided in her ambitious trek by friendly farmer Frank (W Earl Brown), helpful hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and unlikely named journalist Jimmy Carter (Mo McRae). But while other people can help with the logistics of hiking the PCT (her backpack is instantly nicknamed Monster by fellow hikers for its excessiveness), nobody can aid her when it comes to the inner emotional journey which takes up just as much screen-time, and is the reason for the PCT attempt: dealing with her grief over the early death from cancer of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), and her anger at her ne’er-do-well brother Leif (Keene McRae) not pulling his weight.

Wild is not a likeable film. When Strayed begins the trek; not having tested how heavy her backpack would be when full, not having practised setting up a tent, and not having checked what kind of fuel her portable stove takes; you can only flashback to the detestably naive protagonist of 2007’s Into the Wild. Witherspoon is transparently attempting to win an Oscar. You can almost see the calculations on the back of a napkin: true story, multiple nude scenes, hard drug use, a story of redemption – Bingo! Worse, you start to suspect from Nick Hornby’s script that wannabe writer Strayed did the trek purely to be able to write a confessional non-fiction book about doing the trek. The American wilderness seems to inspire cinematically a sort of drivelling poetical mash-up of Frederic Jackson Turner, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jack Kerouac.

Strayed writes mottoes from great writers in station-books, and Dallas Buyers Club Jean-Marc Vallee is reduced to having her accompanied by a highly symbolic CGI fox… Wild is uncomfortable viewing because, as college boys Josh (Will Cuddy), Rick (Leigh Parker), and Richie (Nick Eversman) note, Strayed is the ‘Queen of the PCT’ – people obsequiously make things easy for her, because she’s a woman – but she’s also constantly threatened with rape, especially by roving hunters TJ (Charles Baker) and Clint (JD Evermore). It’s also unrewarding, because Strayed’s reaction to grief is Jennifer Lawrence’s self-destructive spiral in Silver Linings Playbook. But we see it, and are then asked to give a Kerouacian mystical assent to sex addiction and heroin as being somehow positive because they led her to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington – and her perorating non-epiphany of an epiphany.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ is effectively used, the scenery is great, Dern is vivacious, and Strayed’s interior monologue is wise-cracking, but Wild while engaging lacks true heart.

3/5

April 16, 2012

The World Will Be Watching

I feel that I’ve been quite mean to Sam Worthington of late, so I’d like here to put forward a theory of his acting which applies equally to Kristen Stewart.

I was watching Conan a few weeks ago and Sam Worthington was on, promoting Man on a Ledge. I was amazed to see a relaxed, funny, and charming Worthington. I scratched my head wondering how such an affable screen presence could fail to carry over into his movie persona. The answer is I think related to what might be dubbed a cinematic version of stage fright. I came across Worthington in a pre-fame Australian crime comedy late one night and he was quite watchable. Yet reviewing Act of Valour I dubbed Worthington the baseline of competency in film acting, and reviewing Man on a Ledge I noted that he was an adequate leading man, and not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Where did this divide between affable actual Worthington and stiff screen Worthington start? I think it was Avatar, where I noted that he wasn’t a particularly charismatic presence. I think the constant duel to the death he’s engaged in with his American accent is a major factor; he’s concentrating so hard on not slipping into Aussie vocal strains that he has barely any mental capital left to spend on emoting in a given scene; but I think Avatar is also the first time that he had to think seriously about the prospect of far too many people seeing his work – and so arrived the cinematic version of stage fright. Stage fright on an epic scale, though, because rather than freezing at the thought of stepping out in front of 300 people it’s cinematic stage fright at the prospect of being judged by over 100 million punters (a very rough approximation of 1 billion in ticket sales at 10 dollars a ticket) that one could expect a Cameron movie to pull into movie theatres.

I think this idea of freezing in front of a camera when fame hits applies equally to Kristen Stewart, and has been commented on far more in her unfortunate case. I don’t think Stewart has relaxed in front of camera in any of the Twilight sequels, simply because she is now painfully aware of how many people will be watching her, and picking hyper-critically over every detail of her performance; down to making sarcastic YouTube videos of how many times she bites her lip. Her original turn as Bella Swann was a sterling performance that masked the flaws in the original writing of Stephenie Meyers’ bafflingly anaemic heroine (the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend) by virtue of pure charisma and charm… Pre-fame Stewart was quite a competent performer, from Panic Room to Into the Wild and on to her superb performance in Adventureland, but now she’s incredibly wooden at her worst moments; sadly frequent these days. I think a performance like Adventureland is now impossible, purely because, like Worthington, she knows that whatever she does will be scrutinised by millions of people. Her performance in The Runaways wrung substantial emotion from the weak material but it’s dispiriting to think that a talented actress is going to be reduced to ferreting out roles in un-commercial movies purely to get away from excessive destructive scrutiny.


Excessive destructive scrutiny naturally leads us to Keira Knightley. I think Knightley suffered this cinematic stage fright at a later stage in her career than Worthington or Stewart, and also is afraid not so much of ordinary cinemagoers as vindictive critics. I’m thinking here in particular of the ridiculously personalised savaging that greeted her West End turn in The Misanthrope. Knightley’s early roles were characterised by a delightfully disdainful cockiness (The Hole, Dr Zhivago, Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates) but by the time she’d renounced blockbusters after Pirates 3 I’d started to look out for what in reviewing The Duchess I dubbed brittle acting. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can now be guaranteed to coax a truly confident performance from Knightley and her performance in The Duchess suffered from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as in some scenes you could almost visibly see a lack of self-belief flutter across her face. Knightley seems to have taken the Stewart escape route of small movies like London Boulevard, and in Never Let Me Go chose the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excelled as she regained her dash. Hopefully Knightley’s Anna Karenina will also swagger.

Which brings us to the great Jennifer Lawrence, who, like Ellen Page, doesn’t freeze in front of a camera when fame hits. Lawrence dominated Winter’s Bone, which she could safely have expected no one to see. She skilfully portrayed an arc from contempt to compassion in The Beaver, which she could safely have expected not that many people to see. She was affecting as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, personalising the clash in philosophy between Xavier and Magneto and evincing real terror, in a film she could safely have expected everyone to see. And now she’s equally assured as she’s been in all those movies in carrying The Hunger Games, a film which she could safely expect at least 80 million people to pay in to. Lawrence has the self-confidence that Worthington, Stewart and Knightley lack. It doesn’t matter to her that the whole world will be watching: Bring it…

Blog at WordPress.com.