Monday, February 16, 2015

WILD (2014)

Rated:  R

STARS: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski
DIRECTOR: Jean-Marc Vallee
GENRE: Drama

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to sit through the first couple minutes of Wild with your eyes closed and listen to the noises wayfaring Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) emits. You may think you've wandered into a porno by mistake. Then open your peepers to discover that the caterwaulings of a young woman losing a toenail out in the wilderness because her hiking boots are too small can have a remarkably similar ring to that of someone in the throes of ecstasy. A darkly comic moment in a film about some serious business. The business of life and its winding trails.and travails.  

Strayed is on an eleven hundred mile odyssey from the Mojave desert to the Oregon-Washington border--hiking alone, for the most part, along the Pacific Crest Trail. She's got a backpack that's as big as she is, and nearly as heavy. She struggles to raise herself off the floor and stand upright with it on. (Another richly comic moment.) On day one, she's already telling herself it's okay to quit. But she's got something to prove. To herself. The cumbersome pack is symbolic of the baggage she's carrying.  She's just lost her mother (Laura Dern) to a devastating illness, and her husband (Thomas Sadoski)  to divorce. She's been recklessly engaging in drug use and promiscuous sex. So her journey is one of getting in touch with the real person inside. The person her mother thought she was, or could be. The movie sticks pretty close to Cheryl Strayed's best-selling memoir, which adds to its jaw-dropping effect when you consider that this stuff really happened.   

Along the way, Strayed encounters men in various shapes and sizes who may, to varying degrees, pose potential threats to her security. Even in nature, it's  human nature
that always seems to come into play. And we learn a lot about that in Wild. As in what the human spirit is capable of when pushed to its limits. Witherspoon probably didn't hike any further than necessary to complete her scenes, but she did push herself beyond her normal boundaries in terms of amount of skin bared and hot sexy scenes--in the alley no less! 

 I always admire someone who is willing to lay it all on the line for the sake of their art. 

Grade:  B +


I find Cheryl Strayed's last name particularly appropriate as she definitely strayed from her intended hiking trail on numerous occasions. And since I'm in a punny mood, I also find one of Reese Witherspoon's other movies (Walk The Line) also ironic. But as far as Wild goes? The story is impressive and Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) keeps it moving with flashbacks from Strayed's dark past and incredible scenery.  Still, the film proves to me—once again—why I hate camping. Too damn  much packing and unpacking. Over and over again.

Small as her part was, I do think Laura Dern turned in another masterful performance. (Clearly talent runs big in that family!) If by some miracle, she wins this year's Best Actress in a Supporting Role award, it would make a nice touch if her dad, Bruce Dern, nominated last year for Best Actor in Nebraska,presented her with the much-coveted statuette.

Sometimes my ratings are too lenient but this time, probably due to the subject matter, I'm going to be less kind. Frankly, I'd rather watch a Nat Geo Special than sit through nearly two hours of Reese Witherspoon without make-up. Seems to be the thing this year for actresses to expose their un-pancaked faces – Jennifer Aniston in Cake, Julianne Moore in Alice. I prefer 'em beautified.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Rated :  R

STARS: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Elyes Gabel

DIRECTOR:  J.C. Chandor

GENRE: Drama/Suspense

The first thing to remember about A Most Violent Year is that it ain't that violent. Not like the title might suggest, at least. It's a character study, and a very good one, about a man trying to do the right things when all about him are bad influences (like when mom told you to stay away from that nasty neighbor boy). Not the least of which may be his wife. 

The setting is New York City in 1981--statistically one of the most crime-ridden years in the city's history. Immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is living the American Dream. He operates a heating oil distribution business. He wants to do everything above-board and by the book. But what appear to be rival operators are beating up his drivers and hijacking his trucks full of fuel that they can peddle on the black market. Then there is this subtly shady D.A. (David Oyelowo) who's investigating his operation for evidence of improprieties. 

The wild card in all of this is his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a Brooklyn crime boss.  Morales bought the business from her father (bad influence number one).  Despite seemingly good intentions, she can't completely escape the influence of her upbringing.  So as the pressure on Morales mounts, she wants to arm the drivers so they can fight back. Then she issues some veiled personal threats toward the D.A. That's when we recognize an intriguing marital role reversal--where she's the tough guy, and he is someone who only wants to do "the most right thing." That phrase is at the crux of the movie's theme, in my opinion, as the most right thing--that line in the sand--is sometimes blurred and ill-defined (as we all know in our own lives, eh?). 

Title notwithstanding, A Most Violent Year is a surprisingly introspective film. A character study that doesn't rely on the usual Hollywood gimmicks to build the suspense. And there is no lack of that. With riveting performances by Isaac and Chastain. And the ever quirky Albert Brooks, who is a character study all on his own.  



When a movie's title has the word 'violent' in it, I expect to be treated to bullets flying, brutal killings and at least one mafia boss gunned down in a barber shop. No such luck with A Most Violent Year. To make matters worse (from my blood-thirsty point of view), our noble hero, whose ability to stare into the camera in fierce silence for minutes at a time, looks more Italian than Al Pacino and Robert De Niro combined. Misleading? You bet!

Trying to "do the right thing" is an uphill battle in this setting. And I, for one, didn't go to Goodfellas orGodfather I, II & III expecting to come out of the theater pondering the meaning of good. I blame the trailer for this. It certainly led me (and probably the rest of the viewers) to assume A Most Violent Year would be this year's Mafia flick.

Aside from it's lack of savagery, there were no real villains. No Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) or Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men). The acting was good. I'll give it that much. But I walked away feeling as pissed off as those drivers must have felt when their boss wouldn't allow them to carry guns.