Archive for October, 2007

Into the Wild

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007—Film

Into the Wild (USA 2007, Adventure/Biography/Drama), Writer/Director: Sean Penn

Based on Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name, Into the Wild tells the true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young American who gave up all his possessions in search of the truth. Upon graduating from Emory University, Chris donated his savings—$24,000 USD—to Oxfam International and traveled across the United States, with Alaska as his ultimate destination.

This film really touched me, but I wonder how much of that had to do with where I was at emotionally the night I saw it. In retrospect, I think the movie is a bit like Chris’ own journey: it features some moments of real truth and beauty but is sometimes muddled along the way.

When Chris (or Alexander Supertramp, the name he goes by throughout most of the film) is alone in nature—when he’s running with horses, brought to tears at the sight of deer in Alaska, or paddling down the rapids on the Colorado River—the film is inspiring. But at 140 minutes, it goes on longer than it should. And although some of McCandless’ encounters along the way ring sincere, others reminded me of Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven; they’re trying hard to be meaningful and deep, but come across as a little maudlin.

Overall, the story’s structure is handled quite well. The non-linear chronology flows nicely in most parts. And having Chris’ sister, Carine (Jena Malone), provide much of the narration works well because, like the viewer, she’s also trying to understand Chris’ motives. But the family flashbacks are a little corny. I’m thinking in particular of the scene when Chris’ father (William Hurt) beats his wife and refers to himself as god. (Although the scene does set up a beautiful contrast for a later moment in which Hurt casts his tearful eyes to the sky and falls to his knees, beaten down with loss, grief, regret and, hopefully, remorse.)

As Chris, Hirsch left me wishing writer/director Sean Penn had stepped out from behind the camera to pinch-hit. Hirsch is missing that magical ingredient all truly great actors have: the ability to think and feel as their character, and to convey that through the camera without even speaking a word. He lacks the soul and depth that actors such as Penn or Cate Blanchett bring to their roles every time. And for a film that relies on its lead to carry the audience through silent moments of self-revelation, that’s a significant absence.

Chris lives very much in his head. He espouses philosophies and quotes from Tolstoy and Thoreau. “Rather than love, than money, than faith, give me truth.” At the beginning of the film, even in its second third, Chris says that it’s a mistake to look to human relationships for happiness. Instead, people should find it all around them, in the rocks, in the trees, in nature. “Find your eternity in each moment.” He certainly makes a good case for the healing power of being alone. You can feel lonelier when you’re with the wrong people than when you’re by yourself.

But after escaping from his biological family to meet a series of substitute parents, Chris’ final revelation is this: “Happiness is only real when shared.” It completely undermines his entire journey, and yours as the viewer if you bought into his previous assertions.

On to Sean Penn… He is one of my absolute favourites. It’s exciting to see one of the greatest actors of all time finding himself as a director. Still, there are some strange choices in the film, including the decision to have Chris stare directly into the camera on more than one occasion. I didn’t understand that at all. Penn creates a world that’s supposed to be utterly real, a world in which the main character tries to shed all artifice and find his true self. And then Hirsch breaks character and mugs for the camera. It totally takes you out of the moment and drives home the fact that you’re watching a construct, a story that was made shot by shot and isn’t real at all.

But I get the feeling that all of this is just Penn testing the waters as a director before he begins creating true masterpieces.

In the final analysis, I recommend venturing Into the Wild. Despite some drawbacks, the film features beautiful cinematography, some strong performances and a fantastic soundtrack by Eddie Vedder, and it will more than likely get you thinking about your own life and where you want it to go.

Eastern Promises

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007—Film

Eastern Promises (UK/Canada/USA 2007, Crime/Drama/Thriller), Writer: Steven Knight; Director: David Cronenberg

I feel like I need to see this film again before I can really write about it… But thanks to HC’s prodding, here’s my kick at the can.

After all the build-up to Eastern Promises (in my mind, anyway), the best way to describe it is as a shadow(box) of A History of Violence. It comes out swinging, but it just doesn’t carry the same punch.

There are a lot of parallels between the two films. Both feature Viggo Mortensen as a man who isn’t who he says he is. They explore the role of violence in society, and depict it so realistically that the violence is intolerably graphic (to me). Both films open with unknown thugs committing hideous murders, and feature ambiguous endings that are open to interpretation.

Eastern Promises carries the added weight of examining the interplay between two cultures trying to fit together. Set in London, the film explores the ruthless world of Russian organized crime. Sort of A History of Violence told between spoonfuls of borscht. Nikolai (Mortensen) is a driver for one of the most notorious Russian crime families in England. When a naïve midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) discovers a diary containing dark secrets about Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the head of the Russian mafia family, she finds herself caught up in a dangerous world of violence and deception, and turns to Nikolai who appears to be the lesser of many evils.

It’s not that Eastern Promises isn’t a good film. It’s just that Cronenberg set the bar so high with A History of Violence, and his latest effort doesn’t have the same impact. In fact, it seems more like an effort than a labour of love. Eastern Promises lacks the strong undertones that simmered just below the surface of A History of Violence. And because it mirrors a lot of the latter’s structure, you begin to wonder why Cronenberg bothered to make Eastern Promises—what he was trying to say that he hadn’t already.

One thing that doesn’t disappoint is Mortensen’s performance. He really is a phenomenal character actor, capable of impressive physical transformations. He throws himself into the role of Nikolai, body and soul—from the accent and the tattoos, to the bold nude scene that is as graphic as the movie’s violence.

Although I don’t have the stomach for it, I admire the way Cronenberg portrays violence. In interviews, Cronenberg has said that he depicts it as realistically as he does because he wants the horror of death to hit home with viewers. There is nothing glorious about the violence in Eastern Promises. As hard as it is to watch (and I often don’t), it’s a much more respectful way of portraying violence than the exploitative manner in which most modern horror movies do, turning blood and guts into so much eye candy.

Eastern Promises is certainly worth seeing; it’s a solid effort by a skilled, talented filmmaker with a unique perspective on life (and death). But if you’re choosing between Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, I’d put your money on the latter first.