There were so many war films at the Toronto Film Festival that all I could think of was Virginia Mayo’s line in King Richard and the Crusaders: “Oh, fight, fight, fight! That’s all you ever think of, Dickie Plantagenet!” After witnessing bloody battles in Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, Elizabethan England, Northern Ireland, Vietnam and the ghettos of New York and L.A., one felt grateful for the wicked humor of George Clooney. Plugging Michael Clayton, an incomprehensible new flick about corrupt lawyers, he dodged the usual idiotic questions about girlfriends, then responded to one about the similarity between himself and his character with: “Well, we’re both the same height.”
At last year’s circus, Sean Penn was so bored and hostile that he ignored the city’s no-smoking ordinance and chain-puffed his way through his own press conference, costing the Sutton Place Hotel about $600 in fines. This year he was back at the same hotel with a wonderful film called Into the Wild that he wrote, directed and co-produced, and for which he even served as cinematographer during much of the arduous shooting schedule. In a euphoric mood, he refrained from attacking the Bush administration, avoided the subject of politics and only blasted the photographers twice for distracting him with their cameras. Instead of lighting up, he chewed on a glass of ice cubes and left the dubious award for Most Unpopular Star to Tommy Lee Jones, who scowled and cursed the press so much that one boldface headline crowned him “Mr. Crankypants.” Mr. Penn had good reason to be cordial, and so did the press. After 34 war films in 10 days, it was a pleasure to see Into the Wild, which arrives commercially this week at a crowded cinema near you.
Based on the best-selling book by Jon Krakauer, it’s the true story of 22-year-old Christopher McCandless (magnetically played by Emile Hirsch, the gifted and appealing young actor from The Emperor’s Club), an affluent, brilliant and rebellious young iconoclast who, after graduating from college in 1990, gave all of his possessions to charity, burned his money, renamed himself Alex Supertramp and headed into the wilderness seeking freedom—physical, mental and spiritual—from the greed, hate, crime, violence, injustice and materialism of mainstream society. Finding solace and companionship in books by Thoreau, Jack London and other naturalists, he turned his back on convention, and his search for knowledge and wisdom became a personal declaration of independence that took him as far from civilization as he could travel—hiking from the Grain Belt to the sea, paddling his way in a kayak down the rapids of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon without a government permit, hopping a freight train across the border into Mexico, and arriving at last in the snowy wastes of Alaska, where peace reigns and only man is vile. Without electricity, plumbing, cellphones, heat or food, he battled the elements, learned how to hunt, fish and live on roots and berries, and in 1992, four months after reaching his destination, he died from starvation, frostbite and food poisoning in an abandoned bus from the Kansas City Transit System. After his remains were discovered by trappers a few weeks later, he became a legend among hippies, and the rusted bus where his body was found is now an Alaskan tourist attraction.
It’s a sad story that runs two and a half hours, and you already know going in that the protagonist is going to die in the end, so it is positively amazing that Into the Wild is so consistently fresh, riveting and profoundly moving. Its seismic impact must be credited to Mr. Penn’s passion for and enormous dedication to his material. He’s always been a first-rate actor, but he’s also become a director with vision and purpose; I’ve been a fan ever since his devastating and underappreciated Jack Nicholson film The Pledge. He saw something of his own restless nature in the story of Chris McCandless, and this film is sort of a tribute to idealism, from one nonconformist to another. He has chronicled the young man’s journey religiously, shooting in the actual locations and filling the screen with the array of fascinating characters McCandless met along the way and wrote about in his journals. Hal Holbrook as a surrogate father, Catherine Keener as an aging flower child in a desert commune and Vince Vaughn as a farmer who produces drugs are memorable, and Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt are perfect as the bewildered McCandless parents. Photographing whatever catches his fancy—a flight of seabirds, the sunset over a combine harvester in a field of wheat, the dim lights of Skid Row—and capturing every experience with a dangerous immediacy and a breathtaking beauty, Mr. Penn allows us to accompany McCandless on his trip into the wild every step of the way, as close to him as his backpack.
Here’s something else: As much as I admire Mr. Penn’s consuming drive to get this story on the screen, I also salute him for resisting the temptation to nominate McCandless for sainthood. God knows he was brave, but a hero? In addition to his fearlessness, he was also something of a selfish brat, never once making an effort to contact caring parents back home, driven to the lip of madness with worry, not knowing if he was dead or alive. In my opinion, he was thoughtless, arrogant, cruel in his ignorance of the needs and feelings of others and a train wreck waiting to happen. I applaud his spiritual quest, but heading into the wild without maps, compasses or matches is more than a little bit loopy. In the end, McCandless learns life’s most valuable lesson—that real happiness and personal fulfillment come not in alienation from the society you distrust, but through relationships with others. Tragically, McCandless was never able to share what he learned, but his story does teach us something vital about the human condition. He was a breed apart from what you would call average; his life is still haunting, and so is this film.
IN THE GRIM MORASS OF MOVIES arriving daily about abortion, incest, suicide, terrorism, the corruption of power and unendurable violence, a sweet romantic comedy like The Jane Austen Book Club was as bracing as a daiquiri. In a neurotic, geopolitically worn-out world of cellphones, computer screens, ugly SUV’s and gym obsession, a civilized group of five women and one shy man in suburban California form a club to read and discuss the complete works of Jane Austen. Writer Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha) is no Jane Austen, but in her directorial debut, she does a neat job of moving a talented ensemble through the paces as each club member introduces a new crisis similar to the ones in the novels under analysis. Bernadette (Kathy Baker), married six times, sees the group as an “antidote to life.” Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) has just been dumped by her husband (Jimmy Smits) for a bimbo after 20 years of marriage. Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is a lonely woman whose whole life revolved around a dog that just died. Grigg (Hugh Dancy) is a boyish computer geek who agrees to read the books—although he is more interested in science fiction—just so he can win over Jocelyn. Prudie (Emily Blunt, who stole every scene she was in as the haughty editorial assistant in The Devil Wears Prada) is a pretentious French teacher neglected by a husband who cares more about the NBA than his wife’s emotional security. Tackling a book a month, they undergo changes that parallel the Austen narratives, giving them paradox and pause. During Mansfield Park, Grigg gets pushed reluctantly into a date with Sylvia’s lesbian daughter, although he’s more interested in her mother and the grieving Jocelyn. By the time they reach Pride and Prejudice, Prudie is having an affair with one of her high-school students, and Sylvia thinks she’s interested in Grigg but realizes it’s her estranged husband she’s needed all along. Bernadette supervises them all like a character out of Virginia Woolf, not Jane Austen. In the end, even the husband who loves the NBA gives up sports and devours every word of Persuasion. Hugh Dancy (Evening) is prettier than all of the ladies put together. The ladies do their best to hold their own, but who can compete with the books under scrutiny? Slickly produced, endearingly performed, it’s a charming movie that is utterly conventional yet very entertaining. Target audience: middle-aged women who have heard of the author but only seen the movies. The moral is that you can find the solution to every problem in life in the works of Jane Austen. Can the Oprah Book Club on the complete works of Jacqueline Susann be far behind?
More escapist pleasure awaits you in Lars and the Real Girl, a dizzy, offbeat comedy starring the terrific Ryan Gosling as a catatonically shy man who falls in love with an anatomically correct blowup sex doll named Bianca. His family wants to have him committed, but in time the neighbors grow so fond of Bianca they regard her as one of the town’s most popular citizens. It’s a combination of Kids in the Hall comedy and a cautionary tale about not judging a book by its cover (or a toy by its bust size).
The anticipation I customarily reserve for every new Woody Allen film was dampened by Cassandra’s Dream. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play hopelessly irresponsible brothers who are forced to commit a murder to pay off their gambling debts, only to discover that one crime leads to another. Sinking deeper into criminal quicksand by the day, they land in the same boat as Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point. Gloomy and grim, Cassandra’s Dream is named after the boat the brothers buy that they can’t afford, which triggers all the trouble that follows. It’s not Woody at his best. Since he moved to London to work, he seems fixated on Montgomery Clift’s moral dilemma in A Place in the Sun: To get ahead in life, you have to kill the thing you love to get the thing you love even more.
Movies that reflect the fear, pain and despair of the times we live in were abundant. Reservation Road is an emotionally wrenching study of grief following a hit-and-run accident that severely impacts the lives of the dead child’s parents (Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly) and the lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) they hire to find and prosecute the runaway driver. It’s a harrowing film that builds to a shattering climax in which nothing happens the way you think it will.
Rendition is a political thriller about the repercussions from the post 9/11 “extraordinary rendition” policy that grants the government the right to hold anyone suspected of terrorism without evidence, legal counsel or civil rights of any kind for as long as the C.I.A. sees fit. In a heartbreaking role light years away from Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon gives a mature and sympathetic performance as the pregnant wife of an Egyptian-American geologist on his way home to Chicago from a business conference in South Africa who is abducted, rerouted to Morocco, stripped naked and tortured. Rounding out a dazzling cast, Jake Gyllenhaal is the rookie C.I.A. agent recruited to watch the abuse, Peter Sarsgaard is the old college chum who tries to help his friend find her missing husband, and Meryl Streep is the terrifying, marble-cold C.I.A. official empowered to destroy lives with a single phone call. This is a chilling wake-up call to the crimes against humanity the U.S. government commits every day in all of our names. It is destined to be one of the most controversial films of the year.
After sitting through documentaries on Jimmy Carter in Plains, Georgia, Lou Reed in Berlin, a heavy metal band in Baghdad, an 80-something surfer with nine surfer children living in a one-room trailer, Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie, and Maria Callas, I knew it was time to throw in the towel when I headed for the exits halfway through a horror called The Pope’s Toilet, about a town in Uruguay awaiting a visit from the pope where an old man devotes his life (and about two hours of running time) to the construction of an outhouse so His Holiness will have a comfortable place to relieve himself.
On the day I left, they unveiled a film noir about German reality TV with a cocaine-snorting industrial saboteur who creates a hit show on which contestants do unspeakable things on the air with their semen. The title is Reclaim Your Brain. After Toronto, that’s exactly what I intend to do.