Wild (the movie)

For some reason I went into this movie semi-sourpussed, convinced it wouldn’t be very good because Reese Witherspoon’s face is too recognizable and nothing compares to Into The Wild when it comes to movies about privileged white people trekking across the wilderness to find themselves.

I ended up feeling pleasantly surprised and wholly empowered by this film, dammit! How refreshing, and how off-putting to my inherent cynicism, to see a film about a strong woman doing something for herself. It’s a solid, quiet follow-up to Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club. Reese Witherspoon is inevitably recognizable, but where Into The Wild excels in telling the somber, solitary story of Chris McCandless’ journey, Wild shows that the same sort of challenge can be inspirational, communal, and most importantly, survivable. It seemed like McCandless struggled to make his journey symbolic and pure, and while Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) may have begun hers in the same mindframe, she quickly realized that an “imperfect” experience can still be valid. She bummed rides from people, she accepted food and shelter from strangers, she stayed connected to her family, and she still grew and changed and accomplished something extraordinary. She is an example of someone who achieved her goal, social standards be damned, at her own pace.

This movie steers away from heavy-handedness while taking itself seriously when it needs to. Flashback scenes with Strayed’s ill mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), are weepy and poetic, but they show how Strayed’s rebellious, independent-mindedness morphed from a druggie adolescence into a determined adulthood. And Witherspoon’s small physical stature adds needed comic relief; one of my favorite scenes is just before Strayed begins her hike and is prepping her backpack. She struggles under its weight and looks like a helpless wisp in her oversized REI gear, and it’s one of the most normal images I’ve ever seen on film. You feel her embarrassment, you’re glad no one else is seeing this happen, and you’re rooting for her to pack lighter.

I had one qualm with the film, which was the CGI’d fox that appeared a few times, presumably as the “spirit animal” of Bobbi. It took me out of the otherwise incredibly realistic, peaceful world of Wild, and really, the flashbacks themselves were more than enough. The fox basically prevented us from seeing Laura Dern a few more times, and that’s unfortunate.

However. This discrepancy was cancelled out completely by the appearance of:

michiel huisman

Michiel Huisman. The man, the myth, the gorgeous legend. Yes, please.

And with that, applause.

Yes Please

I have a very low tolerance for complaining. I used to be a big complainer, and still complain about things occasionally because I’m a human. But I reached a point a few years ago when the complaints of people who, generally speaking, Have It Good, had reached a completely intolerable level. I don’t claim to know everyone well, nor do I think people are without problems, but I feel like I’ve been exposed to enough complaints from people who should learn to deal that I’m extremely sensitive to them now. I also think complaining is an art that should be honed carefully, and a luxury that should be indulged very lightly in friendships. (I realize the irony here; I’m complaining about complaining. Stay with me.)

My good friend warned me in advance that Amy Poehler does a lot of complaining in her book about how difficult it is to write a book. I’m very grateful for this warning, because it did prepare me, but I still felt bombarded by it. I love Amy Poehler, but after reading the first umpteen pages of Yes Please, I don’t like her as much as I used to. She spends so much time filling space complaining, and then apologizes for how ungrateful it sounds, and then continues to complain anyway, that I almost stopped reading. I did continue, and I’m glad I did, because she doles out really solid advice, but as a twentysomething female who looks up to Amy and her comedy cohorts, it’s really fucking disheartening to see someone this great semi-squander a great opportunity. She could have said no to the book (which she mentions). She could have waited on the book. Worse, she doesn’t even seem that proud of what she made, because she knows she could have done better. It’s a bizarre example to set, especially because she seems like the kind of person that’s very honest with herself. The honesty happened too late in the book process. By the time she realized she couldn’t do it, she was in the hole. I admire the honesty, but I would have strongly preferred hearing her honesty post-book in interviews. Instead, we hear it in the book AND in the interviews.

With the exception of the massively sour lead-in, I really related to Amy here. She is honest, and doesn’t give a flying fuck about admitting pain or imperfection. She has found a way of deflecting it, of not letting it downgrade her in her own eyes or anyone else’s, and that’s an incredibly rare, admirable trait. Of her childhood, she spoke frankly of her lack of struggle: “When you have a comfortable and loving middle-class family, sometimes you yearn for a dance on the edge” (p. 123). She had nothing to complain about then, so she manufactured drama and excitement. She wanted the attention. I never experienced this as a kid — I stayed pretty quiet — but as I got older I did feel the pressure from the cushion all around me. Amy goes on to say, “I would read terrible stories to punish myself for my lucky life” (p. 130), which explains perfectly why most of us are fascinated with the dysfunctional, especially when we don’t have it.

Her perspective as she’s gotten older is so spot-on, too: “I think we should stop asking people in their twenties what they ‘want to do’ and start asking them what they don’t want to do” (p. 12). Yes, and how! The louder we say statements like this, the less pressure we’ll put on ourselves to conform to the lingering archaic aspects of society. (Whoa, where’d that soap box come from? I’ll step off.) We expect so much of each other at certain stages in life, and we fail to account for failure. Failure or idleness isn’t a bad thing. It’s just part of it. I also liked, “Getting older also helps you develop X-ray vision. The strange thing is that the moment people start looking at you less is when you start being able to see through people more” (p. 100). She’s letting us in on the secrets here; just because you’re not the center of attention, doesn’t mean your radar isn’t on.

Another favorite passage was “Reasons We Cry in an Airplane,” particularly these reasons (p. 133):
3. We feel lonely, which is different than being alone.
4. We are missing someone or have just left someone.
6. We feel like time is suspended and therefore we can feel real emotion without consequence.

It’s funny, but more than that, it’s true. Airplanes are our glass cases of emotion, dammit.

I wanted to hear more about her Upright Citizens Brigade days, but the best tidbit she gave was “Matt [Besser] was the first of many men I’ve been attracted to because they know how to play women” (p. 111). She really glossed over this part of her life, maybe because it has already been documented elsewhere, or maybe because it seemed like too daunting a task. Either way, I’m massively disappointed. This is the part of her life that shaped her comedy, that drew her to audiences, that established her as a lady in a world of men. I’d already heard the stories about cleaning toilets and handing out flyers, but I wanted more. She shared a lot from her SNL days, and a good deal from her Parks and Rec days, but UCB is where it all started. Bummer.

I’ll end with a few other pieces of her advice, because she’s really good at giving it. And I’ll listen to it. And I’ll watch her comedy, because she’s brilliant and effervescent. But… I’ll still be conflicted for awhile. Sorry, Amy.

p. 71 // “Your brain is not your friend when you need to apologize.”
p. 225 // “Remember, your career is a bad boyfriend. It likes you when you don’t depend on it. It will reward you every time you don’t act needy.”
p. 280 // “If you can surf your life rather than plant your feet, you will be happier.”

Inherent Vice (the movie)

I love me some Paul Thomas Anderson, y’all. I still get chills thinking about how There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Punch-Drunk Love made me feel after I watched ‘em. There’s something so brutally deep about both the mood and the color palette of his movies that, for lack of a better phrase, really speaks to me. I look forward to being dumbfounded at the end of (usually) two-and-a-half hours. And so I was inherently stoked to see Inherent Vice.

I came out of it inherently angry, for reasons I’m only beginning to understand now. I wanted to like this movie, because PTA is arguably my favorite director, and he cast a slough of wonderful people, and he was trying to do something a little different here, in putting someone else’s words on the big screen rather than his own. But I really didn’t like it. I liked some of the parts, but not nearly enough parts to categorize the whole experience as a “like.” Damn it.

Much of my dislike coincides with my ignorance and/or naïveté. I haven’t read the Thomas Pynchon book on which this movie was based. I wasn’t around in the 1970’s, nor have I spent very much time in Los Angeles, nor have I done any drugs. So, with those qualifiers in mind, I don’t “get it.” And I felt the same way towards Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both movies, after I watched them, filled me with a sense of annoyance and frustration. I couldn’t place the plot, I didn’t find the funny parts funny, and I didn’t understand what, exactly, was so deserving of the love letter that Pynchon/S. Thompson was obviously writing. The cities, yes. The drugs, definitely. But the other intangible thing? It’s there, and I don’t know what it is, and it bugs me.

All of PTA’s other movies meander, sure, but what they’re about is made clear by the time you’re back out in the sunlight. This one left me cold. I felt like I had just watched a bunch of fantastic actors reenact and succumb to the powers of a culture they never really lived through, for the sake of pure indulgence. No statement was Made.

Joaquin Phoenix was, of course, incredible. He always is. And, despite his character Doc’s many inherent vices (OH THAT PART MAKES SENSE NOW), he displayed an alarming clarity that I hadn’t seen in him in any other movie. Doc made his way through a loosey-goosey investigation, and seemed to be doing a pretty good job of it throughout, even when smoking pot and snorting cocaine. Joanna Newsom also earned some major points from me as Sortilege, the narrator, because without her I wouldn’t have had literally any idea what was going on in this film. Her occasional insights helped, and her voice was soothing. The rest of the aforementioned “slough,” Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Owen Wilson, Michael Kenneth Williams, all provided their specific brands of supposed comic relief, but as I mentioned before, it was hard to place their purposes in the story. Really good to see Benicio again, though. Guy is not around enough. (And thank you, PTA, for finally giving your lovely wife a named credit in one of your flicks. Overdue!)

I want to have some sort of takeaway from this movie. I want it to tell me that drugs are bad, which I guess it did by virtue of showing Martin Short do a bunch of blow. That’s an odd visual. I want it to tell me that you can’t really let go of your past, which it did by virtue of Doc going on an indeterminate wild goose chase for his long-lost lady love, the “goose” still being unclear to me. But those takeaways are weak, and I know PTA is better than that. Listening to his WTF episode helped a little (as I’ve found to be the case lately), because I found out that this thing was indeed some sort of love letter to his dear LA, but I couldn’t find a way in to appreciate that. So many other movies appreciate LA in other, more relatable ways. This one just seemed like another one to throw on the pile, except with more actors I like. But maybe I’ll give the movie another shot in a few years. And, hey, I don’t have to like everything PTA has ever done.

Boyhood

It’s a little strange to be writing this after the Oscars, or more specifically for this movie, after the Big Letdown. I had been rooting for Birdman to win, and it did, and I still love that movie despite the fact that it’s about Hollywood and Hollywood awarded it the Pudding and it’s all one big circlejerk, but the more space I’ve given to Boyhood, the more attachment I have to it. Richard Linklater really accomplished something here. I care about the Oscars just enough to think that this piece of art should have won Best Picture. (I’m cool with Iñárritu keeping Best Director, though. Splitsville is always the best solution to that yearly problem. And I sure am glad Patricia Arquette won Best Supporting Actress. No contest. Someone deserved credit for showing up 12 years in a row.)

I listened to Linklater’s episode of WTF the other day, and hadn’t realized that I had seen a few of his films before. He’s a very nice, prolific Texan, and I recommend the episode. He also talked a bit about the autobiographical aspects of this movie, which made me like it even more. See, as I was watching, I couldn’t get around the “documentary” mindset. I had it in my head that he had just shown up once a year for twelve years and filmed Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke parenting this unknown kid. Nevermind their regular lives; this was the life they were leading. Turns out Linklater’s own mother was a lot like Arquette’s Olivia, on her own and working towards a college degree whilst raising two kids. That’s a credit to Linklater’s directing and writing. He infused the story with such truth, such reality, that recognizable movie stars faded into their characters. I was lost in their story because it all seemed so natural. More natural than any other movie I’ve ever seen.

What also disoriented me a bit — not necessarily in a bad way! — was the structure. There were moments that seemed rife with tension; I’d expect accidents to happen whenever anyone was behind the wheel, or fists to be thrown whenever a stare lasted too long, because I’ve grown up blurring the real world with the Hollywood fake world. But nothing bad really happened in this movie. The drama was substantial, and lingering, but it was never overblown. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) dealt with significant things as he grew up, but he handled them the way a normal kid would, because he is a normal kid. He was acting, sure, and especially as he and his character got older, but mostly he was just reacting. His parents were doing the acting, and he was fitting himself in, seamlessly.

Mason, and Ellar, didn’t age the way I expected them to. He starts out with a soft, cherubic face and quiet, innocent eyes. He’s got a bit of baby fat on him, and getting the haircut makes that baby fat stand out. He reminds me a lot of Sam Weir in Freaks and Geeks — younger and smarter than he looks, blissfully unaware of how everyone is maturing all around him. And then, one day, Mason the teen emerges. His face is hollower, his skin is acne’d and peach-fuzzed, and his eyes lose their innocence. He starts talking to girls, or mumbling to them. Quiet becomes introspection, introspection becomes artistic, and artistic becomes questioning. He ages fast, too, spouting cynical thoughts earlier than I can remember myself having them. He has an effect on people. He makes them wait for his response. He’s an enigma of sorts. I wonder if Ellar will dig into the acting world after this, or if he’s just going to dabble, or what. I haven’t watched many of his interviews, so I don’t know how close to emo he is, but I’d venture to say some. Mason is a character, for sure, perhaps one loosely based on Linklater himself, but Ellar has an old-soulness to him that Linklater must have seen early on, and must have known would get infused into the character that became Mason. And sure, he cast his own daughter as Mason’s older sister, Samantha, but Lorelei Linklater served the movie so well by getting out of the way. By having the attitude of a teenager without the overbearing desire for attention.

As far as I’m concerned, Olivia is a real college professor, hopefully finding better luck with better men. Mason the Elder is figuring out how to be a real dad 12-ish years too late, but hopefully right on time for his baby. Samantha is making it. And Mason is getting baked in college right now, expanding his mind, and becoming a man.

American Sniper

It happens most times I see a Clint Eastwood movie: I forget it’s a Clint Eastwood movie until his “Directed by” credit appears at the end. Last time, I was disappointed. This time, I was overjoyed. Well done, homeboy!

The simplest way to describe this movie is something like… a slightly more uplifting version of The Hurt Locker. But more complicatedly, this movie embraces the darkness, revels in the emotional turmoil, whereas The Hurt Locker‘s was built on macho avoidance. Or at least that’s how I remember it. In any case, I only make this comparison to prepare people who haven’t seen it yet. It’s not an uplifting movie by any means. It’s a hard one to watch, but it is damn inspirational.

I decided to write this review today, because in a few hours, I’m going to see Bradley Cooper do something else fantastic, in “The Elephant Man,” on Broadway. Since seeing American Sniper last week, I’ve been on a B.Coop kick. I’ve always loved him, but I revisited Silver Linings Playbook the other night and am just continually amazed by his depth and breadth. I was chatting with a friend the other day, who brought up how he sort of suffers from Brad Pitt syndrome (ie, being too beautiful to be taken seriously as an actor). But I really don’t think so. Pitt is a really good actor, but Cooper is a really great one. Pitt maybe doesn’t trust himself enough to do a romantic comedy. (Can you think of one he’s done? Because I can’t.) Cooper, on the other hand, keeps showing us that he can do anything. He’s got the presence to be in blockbusters (The Hangover), the douchiness to be in big comedies (Wedding Crashers), the heartthrobbiness for aforementioned romance (SLP), he’s been in action movies I haven’t seen, he voiced a freaking raccoon in Guardians, and he boinked Michael Ian Black in WHAS and made out with Betty White on Sunday. He’s the best.

Back to the serious stuff, sorry. His portrayal of Chris Kyle is phenomenal. Pardon my ignorance, but this is the second movie in a row in which I’m writing about a true story I was blind to before. I vaguely remember hearing stories about Kyle a couple years ago, and am sad to say I didn’t pay closer attention at the time. And as I said about The Imitation Game, I’m so glad this movie was made. Kyle’s story is one that needs to be told on a grand scale, so that we understand the glories of war, and the rampant fucked-upedness of PTSD. It’s wonderful that he was able to overcome it, but it’s tragic that someone else wasn’t, and that led to his death.

It took a little bit of time for me to warm up to Cooper’s Kyle. He’s a distanced, polite guy from the start, raised with Southern manners and confidence but always a little more straightforward than his brother growing up and his comrades in the war. His descent into wartime focus and, thus, PTSD, is hard to parse, because it’s ambiguous how much of that madness is his own, and how much was caused by what he saw. Cooper plays it subtle: the descent is slow and creepy, masked by his unparalleled focus and talent. He was the best sniper in the armed forces, and the most humble, too; it seems impossible that someone that talented could ever feel anything other than deep pride. He also comes out of it gradually, embracing his wife more and fathering his children the way he always intended. He’s an easy person to root for, even if his mind is difficult to understand. He’s two people sharing one body.

On the home front, Sienna Miller is graceful and understated as his wife, Taya, so much so that I didn’t even recognize her. I tried for a bit to figure it out, but then I just let her performance take over. I want to know more of her story, more of how she was able to handle watching her husband leave FOUR times to head into a place of almost-certain death, then return a shell of a human. What a life. Out on the battlefield, the actors playing Kyle’s fellow SEALs were also a lot more understated than what I expected. War movies do tend to glorify battle, and that argument has been made for this movie as well, but I never got the sense from American Sniper that the men overseas were undeniably thrilled to be there. They were patriots, and heroes, and all that, but they were scared, too. This movie glorifies the beauty in fighting for one’s country just as much as it details the consequences. The explosions and gunfire are pretty for a second, but then they hit the ground and kill people and ruin lives and wreak havoc.

Chris Kyle really was an American hero, and he lived an important, tragically short life. If this movie, with its depiction of SEAL training, home invasion, sandstorm survival and mental instability still makes people want to go to war, so be it. I don’t ever want to, and I don’t advocate it, but I know that our country wouldn’t be where it is without good people like Kyle.

The Imitation Game

When Benedict Cumberbatch appeared on the screen in The Imitation Game it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually seen him act yet. I had seen him on Jimmy Fallon, and in otter memes, and gracing magazine covers, but I hadn’t seen him do the thing that’s his job. Funny how long that takes sometimes. I’m on board now.

I’m no Cumberbitch, though. He’s a very cute, charming person, but it’s not about that for me. Guy can act. (I must go back and watch Sherlock now!) His performance as Alan Turing is my favorite of the year, by far, and my pick for the Best Actor Oscar. Turing’s story is one I wish I had known earlier in my life, and am grateful to know about now. Between decoding the Nazi’s encrypted Enigma machine in World War II and masking his true sexual identity, he lived a nearly impossible life. Without intending to, he became a stoic, unheard presence in many movements, and his work and life saved probably millions of other lives, even if he couldn’t bear to live his own.

It’s devastating and magnificent to watch Cumberbatch bring this person to life. He doesn’t smile much, so when he does, you jump at the chance to enjoy yourself along with him. Most of the time, though, he’s drawn and serious, in his own head, strained, at a distance from the real world. Even though you don’t entirely understand how his mind works, you get frustrated right along with him, too, when his comrades and coworkers don’t see the world the way he does. You want him to make the kind of progress that he needs to make to win the war because you trust him. That’s the delicate balance that I think only Cumberbatch could have stricken — behind the misunderstood genius is a good person, an unselfish person who comes across as selfish 99% of the time.

Keira Knightley, as his partner Joan, is also really wonderful. I’m really enjoying how she’s breaking away from the traditional period pieces and expanding her breadth, because she can. She and Benedict have a lovely, friendly chemistry. They seem like they’d be friends in real life, in any era, and her Joan brings out Alan’s human side without actually speaking for him. Her story is also quite fascinating: To be the smartest woman in the room, yet to have to cover her intelligence by pretending to be a secretary, hurriedly finding a husband, and generally bowing down to the traditions of the day, must have felt impossible, too. She paved the way for a lot of women, also most likely without even knowing she was.

A ton of historical context had to be built into this movie, in the form of staged war scenes, actual footage of Hitler, Alan’s childhood backstory, and that sort of thing. It didn’t always feel completely seamless, mostly because the style and coloration was a little inconsistent. But without those pieces, without taking us out of the secret room in which Alan and his team were building Christopher, the first computer, we never would have gotten a full grasp of the scope of their project, and the immense pressure they were under. And even though some of these pieces looked and felt a hair clunky, they were placed just perfectly into the story. They came when we needed them most, and they told us exactly what we needed to know. Flashbacks, especially, tend to get in the way, but those in The Imitation Game felt elegant and poetic. Kid-Alan (Alex Lawther) tugged at our heartstrings in such an honest, non-saccharine way, probably because at that age (and in that time period), the feelings he was feeling were so foreign that being reserved and quiet was the only coping mechanism. What a sad, sorry childhood Turing must have led.

I really loved this movie, and am so glad it was made. I even wish that the programming and engineering scenes had been fleshed out a bit more, for the sake of my own stupid curiosity (though it might not have made for the most exciting story), and at the expense of the two random scenes in which Turing takes his frustration out on the running track. There’s so much more to learn about Alan Turing, and this compelling, wonderful film provides a fascinating introduction.

Whiplash

Boy, am I glad I was a mediocre middle school band instrumentalist, and nothing more! The sweet hell of music school is one thing, certainly, but the special sweet hell of being a prodigy? No thank you.

We’ve seen stories about musical prodigies before, though. They’re usually quiet, nerdy, antisocial, studious. There’s something about Miles Teller’s Andrew that is off, for sure, but he’s brazen, loudmouthed, cocky, exactly the opposite of what you’d expect. His ego, for the most part, actually helps him in social situations. He’s a relatively normal kid, save for the fact that he can absolutely kill it on the drums. It’s deceiving.

What’s also deceiving is J.K. Simmons’ performance as Fletcher, the music teacher whose rage I can’t even begin to form words about. Simmons has the kindest eyes and face, and that kindness could never fully leave his visage, but his performance in this movie is about as close as he’ll ever get. The thing is, Fletcher is harmless. He throws things, he yells, he threatens, he screams, but he’s harmless. And yet, in all the terrifying moments of temper loss, it’s so simple to forget that. He takes what little power the talented kids have and wrings it out in seconds. He holds their fate, their futures, their livelihoods in his rather large hands, because they don’t know any better.

There’s a certain Steve Jobsiness to Fletcher, and not just because we mostly see him in a tight black tee shirt. (Or is it a Louis CKiness? A Ricky Gervaisiness?) Actually, the costuming has a lot to do with it. But there’s this brazen focus, this inability to comprehend ever losing, ever coming in second, that brings him closer to a CEO-like fearless leader, such as Jobs. His whole body oozes hatred, and his relationships with all of his students, especially Andrew, are wound so tightly that you truly can’t imagine him ever having a good time. The moments of humanness that we see interspersed throughout the movie, like when he chats with a friend’s toddler daughter, or interacts with Andrew at a small club after their falling out, are really just moments of Fletcher acting. Simmons did a meta role here — he played the greatest fictional actor of all time.

This movie is not the best picture of the year, because it’s only an acting vehicle. Sure, there were creative shots abound, and some of the drumming sequences felt like athletic races and fights and, really, anything but musical. But the drums were not another “character” in this movie. It was a one-two shot between Simmons and Teller, a bizarre exploration of how a kid with no daddy issues — because how can you have them when Paul Reiser plays your dad and is the nicest? — can somehow have daddy issues anyway with this music teacher. Fletcher is not a mentor. He’s a warning. If Andrew isn’t careful, he could wind up like Fletcher and alienate the people he loves by letting his talent run his life. He could also fail at a musical career and have to spend his life teaching kids who show far more potential and drive than he ever did.

Maybe I’m reading into the characters a little too much. But I think one of the many points of the movie was to show how some adults really don’t grow up — they stay shells of their former selves, slaves to their routines. And to contrast with that, some kids show beautiful promise, with just a bit of reigning in necessary for them to achieve it. Or, in the case of Andrew, a lot of reigning in, and a lot of bloody blisters. I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, because it kept me on edge for two hours, but it was an intense look at the world of jazz, the smoothness of which is something we take for granted.

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