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Into the Wild (2007)

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Scanners' 2007 Exploding Head Awards (Part 1)

View image And the Exploding Head goes to... Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd in "Knocked Up"?

I'll publish my annotated "best of" list next week, but while thinking back over the year's movies I recalled some things that seemed to me "beyond category." Or the usual categories, anyway. One way or another, they made my head feel that it might explode. So, while everybody's preoccupied with all those other awards, here are the 2007 Exploding Heads for Achievement in Movies:

Best endings: • "The Sopranos" (final episode): blackout • "No Country for Old Men": "Then I woke up." • "I'm Not There": Dylan's harmonica on "Mr. Tambourine Man" • "Superbad": Baby-steps toward adulthood, separating at the mall escalator • "Zodiac": Stare-down

Most electrifying moment: A dog. A river. "No Country for Old Men."

Best grandma: "Persepolis"

Best surrogate grandpa: Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"

"Arrested Development" Award for Best Throwaway Lines: • "Keep it in the oven..." -- Jason Bateman, "Juno" • "... Terrorism..." -- Michael Cera, "Superbad" (actually, Cera has so many astonishingly brilliant under-his-breath moments in "Superbad" and "Juno" it's uncanny)

Best performance by an inanimate object: (tie) The cloud (and its shadow), the candy wrapper, the blown lock housing in the motel room door, "No Country for Old Men"

Most cringe-worthy lines: • "My cooperation with the Nazis is only symbolic." -- "Youth Without Youth" • "That ain't no Etch-a-Sketch. This is one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet." -- "Juno" (the cutesy moment at the beginning when I nearly ran screaming for an exit; cutting this entire unnecessary scene would improve "Juno" immensely)

Funniest double-edged observation: "He's playing fetch... with my kids... he's treating my kids like they're dogs." -- Debbie (Leslie Mann) in "Knocked Up," watching Ben (Seth Rogen) play with her daughter, who is loving it. That's her point of view, and she's right, but she says it like it's a bad thing.

View image Ain't nothin' but the real thing, baby: Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener in "Into the Wild."

The Real Thing: "Non-actor" Brian Dierker, rubber tramp, "Into the Wild" (and, of course, his "old lady" Catherine Keener, actor extraordinaire)

Best film about the way The Industry really works since "The Big Picture": Jake Kasdan's "The TV Set." The moment I knew it was going to be exceptional (sharp, precise and, therefore, extraordinarily funny) was when the writer's choice for the lead role gives an audition that's just... underwhelming. He isn't good. He isn't terrible. He just isn't enough. Which then allows the network execs to push for the "broader" alternative ("To me, the broad is the funny"). And even he proves himself capable of being not-awful -- in rehearsal, at least...

Best political film: (tie) "12:08 East of Bucharest" and "Persepolis" -- a pair of smart, funny movies about the effects of political revolutions on individuals in (respectively) Romania and Iran.

Deadliest stare: (tie) Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), "No Country for Old Men"; Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), "Atonement"

Young comedy whippersnapper stars of the year: Michael Cera (19), Ellen Page (20), Seth Rogen (25), Jonah Hill (24), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (18)

Game savers: J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney, who come to the rescue of "Juno" not a moment too soon

Best torture porn: The excruciatingly funny baptism scene with Paul Dano and Daniel Day Lewis (both of 'em overactin' up a storm -- but in a fun way), "There Will Be Blood"

Most worthless critical label: "Independent." A movie should not be viewed through its budget, financing or distribution. And in these days of studio "dependents" (Miramax, Focus Features, Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight, etc.), the term "indie" is frequently misleading at the very least.

Best bureaucrat: Dr. Fischer (Alberta Watson), "Away From Her"

Best negotiations: • Chigurh and the gas station owner, "No Country for Old Men" • Chigurh and the trailer park lady, "No Country for Old Men" • Chigurh and Carla Jean, "No Country for Old Men" • "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days": The painfully protracted, ever-shifting moral balance (and exhausting power-struggle) in the hotel room, between the friend and the abortionist -- while the pregnant woman herself passive-aggressively bows out of any responsibilities for what has happened, or will happen.

"Perfume" Award for Best Portrayal of Synesthesia: "Ratatouille"

Best Supporting Crotch: Sacha Baron Cohen, "Sweeney Todd." An squirm-inducing scene-stealer that makes you long for a change of angle: Please give us an above-the-waist shot! (Did they have spandex in mid-19th century London?)


TIFF 2007: Grizzly boy

View image Emile Hirsch as Alexander Supertramp. A star is (re)born.

Ladies and gentleman, writer-director Sean Penn has not ruined the story of Christopher McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, in his big-screen adaptation of Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book, "Into the Wild." The movie has awkward patches (is it too late to get rid of the strident Eddie Vedder songs?), devices that just don't work (lose the distracting handwriting from Alex's diary scribbling across the screen), and it leans toward romanticizing what is known about a life that is more ambiguous and mysterious in Krakauer's necessarily fragmentary, journalistic chronicle.

View image The last known photo of the real Chris McCandless.

But Penn's empathy with his driven hero is unmistakable and deeply felt. Alex (as he renamed and introduced himself to those he met on the road) was a kind of Holy Fool, a young man whose rebellion against his parents' values -- indeed, their very lives -- grew into a wholesale rejection of society and the culture of materialism that he found empty and meaningless. His contempt for the hypocrisy of the world into which he was born transcended the teenage bellyaching of Holden Caulfield. Alex's literary models are Thoreau, Tolstoy and Jack London. Shortly after fulfilling his parents' expectations by graduating from Emory University in 1990, he donated all his savings (about $24,000) and disappeared into the wild, heading west to Colorado and California, south to Mexico, and eventually north to Alaska, as a "leather tramp." Shoe leather, that is.

His journey -- like most quests -- was as relentlessly internal as well as geographical. He was driven, in every sense of the word. Was he running away from something or in search of something, or both? And was that thing, in either case, himself?

Of course, the answers to these questions are unknowable -- as, fundamentally, was Chris/Alex, perhaps to himself and to all who met him. But his idealism, his motivation, his disillusionment and disgust with convention, animated him and sparked a flame in others, who tended to see part of their better selves in him. Penn's adaptation falters when it tries to simplify the character, to suggest answers to questions that, to be honest, must be left open.

The film attempts to draw a direct "through-line" (or, if you prefer, "character arc") from a philosophical youngster who tells an old man that the value of life does not come from human relationships, to a supposedly wiser (but not much older) young man, isolated in the wilderness, writing between the lines in a Russian paperback novel that happiness is meaningless unless it is shared.

By then we already know that some of Alex's happiest moments were when he was alone, and that while he cared for other people, he didn't rely upon them to give his life meaning. (And who says he was primarily interested in finding "happiness," rather than some kind of larger truth or awareness?) I think the movie presents this notion of "shared happiness," in the section captioned "The Getting of Wisdom," as a breakthrough, a moment of enlightenment, rather than simply a moment -- one of many notes to himself Alex left behind. This is not simply a story of Christopher McCandless reinventing himself as Alexander Supertramp, only to better understand and accept his identity as Christopher McCandless again. To see it that way is to mistake fractional evidence for a shapely scenario (think of the case for invading Iraq, SP).

I read Krakauer's book about ten years ago, but I don't recall any evidence to indicate Alex refused to have sex with a girl he befriended because she was underage. Chris/Alex's apparent lack of interest in sex was a mystery to everyone. He seems to have channeled his drive into other areas. At any rate, the way the scene is presented here (girl undresses and presents herself to him on a mattress) doesn't play. It feels like a development presented explicitly to explain or illustrate, to address a particular question about the character rather than to explore it.

Now I realize I've spent four paragraphs about what I don't think works in the film, when I started off by announcing that it I liked it, was moved by it, and that it wasn't the misfire I had feared. I say that not because I had any reason to think it would fail, just that I felt so strongly about the source material that I really, really didn't want to see a disservice done to it.

View image The abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness where the real McCandless camped.

Two things immediately impressed me about "Into the Wild":

1) The diversity of the locations so vividly (and often spectacularly) captured by Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier. Each place registers an emotional and psychological impression. These aren't just landscapes Alex happens to pass through; we seem to be entering them through his experience, and to absorb something from them as he does. Appropriately, the place that seems the least distinctive is the one he left behind, the world of his parents (school, suburbia) that he rejects.

2) The equally vivid, lived-in feel of the performances. Emile Hirsch has never quite registered with me before, but this is a star-making role. He has to hold the entire movie together, while everyone else passes through his life. Hirsch may now be where Leonardo DiCaprio was around the time of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "The Basketball Diaries." The movie goes right to the verge of making Alex/Chris too saintly, but Hirsch suggests the naivete and self-possession/selfishness of a young man who, perhaps, can't accept love and doesn't know quite how to express it. But he does recognize its expression in others.

View image North to Alaska, deeper into Denali.

From the moment Brian Dierker appears, I figured he was either a great actor or not an actor at all. Turns out this is his first screen credit, and he's a veteran Grand Canyon river guide. Penn must have recognized the real thing when he saw it. As Rainey, one of the "rubber tramps" (on tires, in an RV) who picks up Alex, he's startlingly authentic, an old hippie who's learning that life isn't what he's thought it was, or would be. This is one of those rare nonprofessional turns that is so real, so lived-in, that it deserves recognition -- even if the guy isn't "acting." He's absolutely genuine in his own skin. Many professionals would give their eye teeth to achieve this level of authenticity on the screen.

Of course, Catherine Keener, as his old lady, is one of the few pros who can match this level of unforced naturalness, and her scenes with Dierker are heartbreaking. She is the emotional center of the movie: Alex is the son she lost, and she's the mother he wishes he had had. They both recognize this bond subconsciously from the moment they meet, and it's as if they've each found a missing part of each other.

Alex is blessed with a series of influential, much-needed father figures. In addition to Rainey, there's Vince Vaughn (funny and poignant) as a factory farmer, and Hal Holbrook (eloquent beyond words) as a widowered leather-worker. It seems trite to mention Hollywood awards in the face of such affecting work, but when the Screen Actors Guild nominates their "best ensemble cast," everybody here deserves to be in the running.


TIFF 2007: Madmen and lawyers

View image He's mad as hell...

Tom Wilkinson has probably won an Oscar nomination for supporting actor in "Michael Clayton" before he ever appears on the screen. Or he should, anyway. But then, he should also be competing with (just to mention some of the other supporting male performances I've seen in Toronto thus far) the likes of Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook and especially Brian Dierker in "Into the Wild"; Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" (or are those leading actor performances?); Armin Mueller Stahl and Jerzy Skolimowski (!) in "Eastern Promises"; and definitely Sydney Pollack in "Michael Clayton"...

Now, I am not one of those people who come to Toronto for Oscar-spotting purposes. But "Michael Clayton," written and directed by "Bourne" series screenwriter Tony Gilroy, is the kind of smart, crisp, "serious" mainstream entertainment that gives Hollywood (or the part of it influenced by George Clooney) a good name. I guess you could describe it as a Manhattan "legal thriller" -- most of the main characters are corporate lawyers -- that strikes a delicate tonal balance between the cynical political paranoia of the "Bourne" movies, the satirical paranoia of "Network," the corporate paranoia of "The Insider," and the legalistic paranoia of "Erin Brockovich." And, as in all these movies, when you're feeling paranoid, it doesn't mean somebody isn't out to get you.

Wilkinson finds that perfect chord, and establishes the tone of the movie, in his off-screen opening monologue, a breathless rant of a voice message left for his fellow attorney, the eponymous Michael Clayton (Clooney), the firm's "fixer" who is called in to take care of delicate "problems" for a rich and powerful clientele. Wilkinson's character, Arthur Edens, is a brilliant lawyer who's been working for more than a decade on a single case, involving a chemical manufacturer that, after the usual cost-benefit analysis, released an agricultural product with toxic effects on humans. (The company's earth-friendly TV spots will look painfully familiar to PBS viewers, where such underwriting entities are expert at peddling their green corporate citizenship.)

Arthur is also manic-depressive, and he's gone off his meds, and he's raving about the moment of clarity he's having about the dirty, soul-killing business he's in. He's like Peter Finch in "Network," only his volcanic monologues aren't quite so messianic. (But then, he's not working from a Paddy Chayevsky script, either. Actually, I think "Network" would have been a better movie if it had been written and directed more in the style of "Michael Clayton." That is, a bit more dryly.)

View image Clooney and Pollack: These guys are good. Really good.

The movie revolves around the title character's face, and its hard to think of another actor who could hold it together the way Clooney does. His eyes reveal a quicksilver intelligence -- always sizing up the situation, figuring out how best to play it, even when he's utterly lost -- that Clooney can do without looking like he's trying. He doesn't give things away, he just registers enough to for you to notice without noticing that you're noticing. And that's a considerable accomplishment (especially when you remember how broadly, goofily dumb he can also play with supreme confidence, as in the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). Equally adept, and really fun to watch, is Tilda Swinton as an ambitious corporate climber, who rehearses her every statement while nervously trying on the appropriate uniform for each boardroom crisis. (Look for Ken Howard and Miles O'Keefe in surprising roles as professional office politicians.)

And there's ever-reliable Sydney Pollack, who has become one of my favorite character actors ("Husbands and Wives," "Eyes Wide Shut," "The Sopranos"). The man is a consummate actor, so effortlessly natural he can make others look mannered next to him. That makes him the ideal foil for the comparably relaxed style of Clooney, and their scenes together are especially fun to watch. They also provide Wilkinson with something solid that he can bounce his wild, unpredictable serves off of. (I feel about Pollack the opposite of how I feel about Sean Penn: the former is a better actor than a director, and with the latter it's the other way around. Pollack is a producer on the film -- and Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella among the executive producers -- and I mean no slight when I say I found myself grateful that they decided to let, or enable, somebody else to direct this one.)

View image

Gilroy does just fine in his directorial debut. His style suits his actors (and, for that matter, his leading characters): handsome, smart, economical. Three of the last four shots in the film (number three is simply a bridge between two and four) are quiet stunners, though I would have cut to black about two or three seconds earlier at the end. The first of these final shots sums up the virtues of the film ideally: While quite naturally following the trajectory of one character in the foreground, the fate of another is captured in the same frame, but out of focus and in the receding background. It's another perfect note, and it's handled so deftly you could almost miss it. You won't, though -- and the great thing is you'll feel like you discovered it yourself. Along with everybody else in the audience.