Movie Review: “Wild” Is My “Boyhood”

Wild sang me a song of myself. Where Boyhood missed, for me, Wild took me places. Before you jump to judge, I will preface by saying that there is nothing at face value about my childhood that directly aligns with that of Cheryl Strayed’s. But just because I had a privileged childhood sans an “abusive, alcoholic asshole” for a father does not mean for a second that I didn’t have my share of struggles and consequent sojourns.

Although there’s something very expected about the plot, the arc, and even the central characters, I didn’t much mind. At times, I found the dialogue contrived and the male supporting actors miserable. Thomas Sadoski brought little to the film. Not to hate, I think he was fabulous in Newsroom, but he requires ignition from excellent, dialogue-driven screenplays (don’t get me started on my adoration of Aaron Sorkin). This was not it. (But it wasn’t really about him, so it didn’t need to be).

Reese Withersppon was awesome. Although I don’t think her performance as a whole in Wild can eclipse her work in Walk the Line, she deserves a lot of credit for her commitment and courage. She possesses a great, wide range that sings on the trail and off. Never overreaching, she carries into each moment the whole life of the character with her, like the pack on her back. I imagine this is what they try to teach ballet dancers: extension.

Director, Jean-Marc Vallée is cited as the “unsung hero” of the film, and I think there’s certainly something to be said for his cuts and control. I could see how it might have spiraled out a bit without decisive direction, what with the fairly linear hike plot peppered with an inconstant quality to the flashback scenes. Wild gets right to it. It would have been easy to languish in some of the heavier moments, but it almost accelerates through them. So, when we come to a scene with Strayed and her younger brother praying in bed, the impact is palpable.

The little things really went the distance for me with Wild and especially with Witherspoon. She embodies in her acting the essence of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my short life: obstacles are opportunities. Struggling over that first big obstacle, that hugeass rock, unsure of her footing and timidly testing her instincts, as opposed to her sure-fire, yet still fumbling, attempt to ford that river, breathes depth where dialogue dwindles.

This speaks to me in a way in which none of the characters actually uttered. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s not always about success by someone else’s standards. She almost gets swept away in the waters. It was graceless, yet calculated. Strayed had learned to trust herself that she would get to where she wanted to go, hindering hesitance.

Sometimes, also, those obstacles are yourself. At the top of my Google search for “Wild film” is Leah Finnegan’s (of Gawker) haterade unconsidered, click-bait meltdown. She claims that Witherspoon “couldn’t act like a sympathetic character if there was an Uzi to her back.” I actually kind of like this, Leah. This, to me, proves that Witherspoon got it just right. I don’t believe Cheryl Strayed is, or was, meant to be a sympathetic character. She struggles sympathizing with herself.

This is a flawed review, and I’m not simply saying so because I take a fundamental stance against the argument. Finnegan even, nay especially, cannot divide the character from actress. She goes on to write, “Witherspoon is a sniveling, Flickian, narcissistic bitch…” which should read, “Strayed is a sniveling, Flickian, narcissistic bitch.” Which, at times, she is. This is developed in the heart-wrenching scene with Strayed quips at her mother for not having been nearly as sophisticated as she is at her age. If she wasn’t so flawed, and I’m not talking just about the heroine use or the cheating, why would she be so preoccupied with redemption?

Other high points for me included:

– How clean Strayed nails were at the beginning of the film when she dials her ex-husband. This is a curious, clean canvas.

– The select times she regards herself in the mirror. These moments are literally reflective, but also serve as cinematic commas. It is beautiful to notice when she allows herself visual self-reference.

– The role of animals. The fox was a bit forced, but the rattlesnake and the llama were great as they both confronted her, challenging the wild inside. The horse? Well, the horse was heartbreaking.

I want to emphasize something that probably isn’t a common take-away from this film. Children, especially girls, need to be encouraged to explore. Believe it, or not, I was a tomboy until I “came of age” and got a party dress for my bat mitzvah. I did the outward bound summer outdoors, cargo shorts and all. This is something that I am so grateful for. I learned, from a very early age, that I can survive, I can surmount, and it’s ok to struggle. I don’t want my future daughter to have to find these things out after I have left her.

That’s not to say that I haven’t ever lost the plot. I have had considerable doubts in myself and have almost crumbled under some of the issues in my life. But, like riding a bicycle, I was able to bounce back faster than the textbooks tell. I owe a lot of that to my childhood spent barefoot in the woods.


Birdman Review: The Best Film I’ve Seen in the last Decade

Everyone flipped over Boyhood. I mean, I watched it. I found it poignant, and applaud it for what it stands for as a work in its vision, ingenuity, and the commitment it must have taken through the 12-year process. However, and this may be because I’m not a boy, and this also may be because I don’t have children of my own yet, but it didn’t resonate with me.

But now to Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). For one, I’m a huge Raymond Carver fan and a student of his work. The adapted short story as the play-within-the-film, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is a powerful choice and stands as a fascinating foundation. I’d even say that some of Carver himself runs through the veins of Birdman, in that the concept of love in its many forms is a central theme; but I would strongly disagree with Jonathan Leaf (for Forbes) who writes that “Birdman betrays Raymond Carver.” Not that I believe anyone staunchly adhered to the original short, but it’s actually moot in my point of view, as the film was not intended to be an adaptation of Carver’s work. It was the backbone, but not the heart of it.

The reason why I love Birdman is in its entirety, as a work. The acting was magnificent. Michael Keaton delivered a gorgeous performance imbued with…well, truth. Some say this is, in part, from his experience portraying Batman. I don’t even care. That helps, sure. Everyone works out of experience. You can’t escape experience; but I believe Riggan wrestles with something we all, as creators and humans, face, namely: vulnerability, the desire to be validated by others, and downright loved. (As an anecdote, Keaton will always be Dogberry to me from Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing; I couldn’t care less about his role as Batman).

The supporting cast, too, was awesome. But the filming of the movie reached divinity. Blocking, timing: these are all things that are paramount in stage work, but that don’t always have dire consequences in film production. However, the long takes that contribute to the seamless, seemingly-single-shot scene left little to improvisation, and were drenched in intention (in the best way possible).

I haven’t even gotten to Alejandro González Iñárritu. He brought such a genius and dynamism to this film. One of the most important parts, for me, was the quality of magical realism he gave Riggan and this imagined world. Oh, sure, he’s moving things around with his mind. There is a great Latin American heritage that deals with magical realism. I spent a semester studying this, and Iñárritu joins the ranks of BorgesGarcía Márquez, Allende, Esquivel, and others in doing so in a way where we all suspend our belief and board that bridge between magical and ordinary, without question.

“Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” -García Márquez.

I just, I can’t even try to be cool about it anymore. I loved Birdman. I can’t think of a film I’ve seen in the last decade that fulfilled me this entirely. Was that an oversell?

I can’t believe I’m reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey before Birdman

Fifty Shades of Grey was more than entertaining for me. I found it excellent as a “success on its own terms,” (Robbie Collins for The Telegraph). It is the best possible outcome for an adaptation (my writer side refused to get it up for the novel). I believe the book already “destigmatizes kink,” (A.O. Scott for The New York Times, whom I largely disagree with). The sociology major in me is delighted by this collective challenge of the norm. However, this was not primarily what I believe the movie was meant to do or be.

The movie is propelled by the production (clearly not the plot or even the acting). One of the more impressive aspects of the movie was that it was so sensual (and I’m not talking about the room or those scenes). In other words, what makes this movie great is how it seduced multiple senses, especially because it went beyond the expected. Almost all of the artistic/aesthetic choices had intention.

My favorite aspect of the movie was probably something that went unnoticed: Christian’s deliberate choices in wine. This is one of the more sophisticated character development devices across movies of this caliber (I still love you, Twilight. #teamedward). I took it as his emotional “tell.” It is clear that he does not condone aimless consumption of alcohol. Therefore, it is important to note when he does indulge: (1) when he has her over to present the contract, he chooses a light, white wine. I imagine it with a bit of an acid/mineral profile to cut the tension (like a chardonnay you might chose to pair with a raclette); (2) Champagne was obvious for her graduation, but (3) the viognier, I imagine, that they had over the contract review scene was fuller bodied and sweet, almost chewy, in his attempts to psychologically soften her stance.

Other high points included:

– When Anastasia enters the car on her way to the helicopter. I could practically smell the leather.

– That bathtub, nuff said. (As an anecdote, the best movie bathtub is still Driss’ in Intouchables). 

– The card stock of the contract = textural ecstasy, for me.

What I think is the most important lesson to be learned from 50 Shades, as a body of work, is about the dialectical nature of boundaries. Or, in other words, the liberation one can achieve on a personal and cooperative level by clearly delineating limits and expectations. I see the vehicle of this as honesty. If more people were honest (with themselves first and then with others) about who they were and what they wanted (not just in the bedroom) we would all probably like ourselves better and have more rewarding encounters.

I have always been scared of boundaries. Hell, I lived a pretty boundless life for a while. And you know what? I was miserable. I strayed farther from myself than I ever had because I lacked honesty and structure.

Christian is the dominant and Anastasia is the submissive. I find it fascinating to watch both characters struggle to fit into what that actually means. Is it not the truth that in situations involving more than just one human being, that there usually emerges a dominant and a submissive? We have somehow culturally imposed a very large river, if you will, between these titles, forcing this pair to polarity. However, what if we accept that maybe the proportional degrees of difference in these roles may not be so extreme? As well, what if we accept a certain level of agency that both roles have unto themselves and vis-à-vis others? Would it be so scary, then?