Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review: Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon in the hard-charging yet contemplative drama Wild.

Author's note: This is a review I let lie fallow for over two months. I saw Wild back in early January; it was one of the first films I saw in the New Year. The film has stuck with me so strongly that I would rank it among the top two or three films that I have seen in 2015 so far, along with Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, and Jennifer Kent's terrific low-budget horror film The Babadook. Thus I present to you my belated review of Wild, more or less as I wrote (but never posted) it back in January:

Wow! I just saw Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild in the theater a few weeks ago, and wow! The film really blew me away. It was intense, dramatic, and yet at the same time contemplative -- kind of like a harrowing character study in the vein of Leaving Las Vegas fused with a meditative and soulful film like Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy.

To be fair, I went into Wild expecting to like it. I enjoyed Vallee's previous film, Dallas Buyers Club, quite a bit, especially for its performances, and while that film wasn't perfect, after reading this article about the director's methods, I suspected that he would really deliver the goods on this Reese Witherspoon showcase.

Vallee's moviemaking style involves "natural lighting, a skeletal crew ready to capture spontaneous moments, and no rehearsal." 

And indeed, the goods are delivered, by crew and actors alike. Witherspoon is terrific in the lead role, playing as understated a part as I have ever seen her assay. The film, with a well-adapted screenplay by Nick Hornby, is not dialogue heavy: most of the important stuff is conveyed by Witherspoon's facial expressions and body language, or else via the film's remarkable editing and sound design. Dramatizing Cheryl Strayed's post-divorce three-month solo trek north along the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild unfolds its protagonist's back story via intermittent flashbacks, most of which involve Cheryl's relationship with her mother, played by Laura Dern. Dern gives a career-topping performance as this deeply flawed but ultimately noble (perhaps too saintly as we see her through Cheryl's eyes?) character.

As this online article argues,
Wild was one of the best American movies of the year. It was quietly revolutionary in its focus on one woman’s doggedly personal tale. It should have been a huge hit instead of a minor one, and it should have been a bigger part of the Best Picture conversation. That it wasn’t reflects some unhappy truths about the way the academy, and Hollywood at large, view women’s stories.
Just so. I have discussed the unequal representation of women in Hollywood before, so won't retread that ground here, but I must say that I am really bowled over by the lack of awards-season attention Wild is getting. It is head-and-shoulders a better movie than The Imitation Game and I also strongly suspect that it is better than The Theory of Everything even though I haven't seen that one.*

It may be that both gender inequities AND generic expectations play a role in Wild's seeming lack of cultural cachet (and Oscar noms) relative to its more formulaic contemporaries. Surely Mr. Turner suffers from the same problem, being a biopic that doesn't really feel anything like a standard biopic. Both Wild and Turner zero in on a brief period in their respective subjects' lives, dropping the viewer into the period quite dramatically in medias res. No complicated backstory or explanation of the character's earlier days is given. No subtitles whisk us through a montage of the character growing up, going to school, etc.

That said, Wild does, like its protagonist, fixate upon the figure of Cheryl's lost mother, thereby illuminating aspects of Cheryl's earlier life -- but all from her own (volatile, fragmented) point of view. The film's jumpy flashback structure makes it feel more like a thriller at times than a typical "life story" type biopic.

The film's subjective, thrillerish edge is complimented by Witherspoon's hard-charging performance as Cheryl. Kathleen Karlyn has written about the ambivalence at the core of Witherspoon's star persona and onscreen roles, an uncompromising feminist unruliness perhaps best embodied in her performance of Tracy Flick in 1999's Election.** I teach this film to undergraduate Film Theory students every semester and it never fails to elicit at least a few reactionary responses from viewers (mostly young men) who see Tracy as the despicable villain of the piece. These students usually don't quite "get" the darkly comic and ironic tone of Election or pick up on its critique of Matthew Broderick's under-achieving Jim McAllister. Many students miss that Witherspoon's portrayal of Flick exposes "the anxieties women with ambition, intelligence, and drive raise in men struggling to redefine masculinity in the postfeminist age."***

Reese Witherspoon threatens Matthew Broderick's masculinity in Election (1999).

Films about complex, ambivalent, nuanced, non-stereotypical women are going to feel unusual and confrontational and uncomfortable to many of us at first, conditioned as we are to the norms of patriarchal cinema and culture. Witherspoon's gutsy portrayal of an imperfect female character in Wild is just the kind of thing we need more of in Hollywood.

If I have any critique of Wild at all, it is that two of the men Cheryl encounters in her travels are portrayed as backwoods hicks and potential rapists, and while I understand that the film is based on a real-life memoir, I still felt uneasy about the Deliverance-style vilification of rural folk in those scenes. Framing them as sinister hicks seemed an easy way to get us to fear them, and I wonder if the real-life Cheryl Strayed's memory of these two is exaggerated or condensed in some way in the book and/or film versions. Yet that uncertainty, which comes from delving deep into character subjectivity, is one of the great strengths of this (or almost any) movie. Wild dares to show us a character at her rawest and most incomprehensible to herself, depicting in vivid yet imperfect detail the grief process of a woman we may not completely like. Wild tells the story of someone who may not be fully aware of some of the ways in which she is privileged (and her resistance to the word "hobo" is genuinely hilarious). Yet finally Wild depicts the story of a person in transition, a person making discoveries about herself as we watch and participate. It is exhilarating.  

Wild is something unique and special, a woman's journey through grief depicted with visual richness, dramatic intensity, and narrative virtuosity. The sound design alone is worth the price of admission. Reese Witherspoon, one of Hollywood's finest actors, is in top form here, giving an emotionally wrenching, go-for-broke, yet atypically restrained performance. Whatever its small faults or rough edges, Wild surely represents an artistic high point for all involved.

To sum up: see this movie.

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee. What a badass. 

UPDATE 2/7/2016:  Please check out this excerpt from this wonderful roundtable interview in which Reese Witherspoon addresses the sexism implicit in the Academy's failure to recognize Wild -- or any other female-led films -- in 2014:
It was really interesting how well received [Wild] was and how well it did. It was one of the highest reviewed movies of the year last year not in Oscar consideration at all for best picture. At the time I was like, ‘Okay, it’s one of the best reviewed films of the year, but it’s not one of the top 10.’ It’s hard. I looked and was like, ‘Are any of the top-10 movies starring women?’ None.
* Both these films suffer from the "formulaic biopic" problem -- The Imitation Game, despite its interesting and powerful subject matter and superbly executed central performance, is edited, directed, and scored like a shitty assed Lifetime movie, and its formal clunkiness hinders, even mars the material. [UPDATE 3/27/2015: To be fair, the biopic is not a genre I am typically drawn to and I may have a lackluster appreciation for its conventions.]
** Karlyn, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers (U. Texas Press, 2010) p. 128.
*** Karlyn, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers p. 139-40.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Review: Transformers Age of Extinction (2014)

Or, Marky Mark is a racist asshole.

Believe it or not, this past week I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction. It is, of course, a shit movie, yet a surprisingly entertaining one. Aside from feeling some pronounced "action fatigue" around the two-hour mark, I more or less enjoyed watching Age of Extinction, which is more than I can say for any previous installment of the Michael Bay helmed Transformers franchise.* I mean, it's no Sharknado 2, which I saw recently and highly recommend, but it's WAY better than Exodus: Gods and Men, which I also saw recently and is so odious and boring and badly executed that I refuse to review it.**

I should note that I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction in a group and several of us heckled the thing the whole time. This home-brewed Mystery Science Theater 3000 element surely played a role in my ability to sit through Extinction's two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

Silly and predictable though it may be, Transformers 4 is not without its pleasures: 
this dinobot thing is pretty goddamned cool. 

All that said, there are distinct positive qualities that make this film much more watchable than any previous Bay directed Transformers blockbuster. For one, the film eschews the director's usual over-use of "shaky cam" and chaos cinema fast cutting, instead shooting the action more traditionally to allow the viewer to see and understand the fight and chase sequences. This alone was a refreshing revelation. I do not so much mind how stupid and sexist and racist Bay's films are, because at least they do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: very big, very stupid summer action movies. Yet I got headaches trying to make sense of the shitty, impossible-to-follow action sequences in the first and second Transformers movies. Indeed, the first three Transformers films are so incomprehensibly shot and edited that their visual obtuseness has become a kind of running joke. Watching Transformers 4 I found myself wondering if Mark Wahlberg had a sit-down with Bay before shooting the picture and told him that he needed to cool it with the goddamn shaky cam already.

Or maybe Bay somehow saw this video and decided to make a few changes:

A daring experiment in structural film criticism.

Then there's Wahlberg himself, who, despite embodying some questionable, contradictory ideological values, surely delivers the kind of charisma and star power a franchise of this magnitude needs.*** In fact, one could argue that Wahlberg's star persona, a perfect embodiment of vaguely retrograde, All-white-American masculinity, is an ideal fit for the tone of the franchise and Bay's work in general. Wahlberg's Cade is a man's man whose notion of fatherhood is limited to hamfisted attempts to control his daughter's sexuality by yelling at her. Once the shit hits the fan with the robots about fifteen minutes into the film, he is in his element, dropping one liners and surviving incredible stunts and fights that would kill any normal man ten times over. He doesn't blink an eye when Lucas (T.J. Miller), his longtime business partner and friend, is brutally incinerated in front of his eyes. He is the ultimate working-class tough guy.

Extinction's pronounced sexism extends to its numerous gratuitous ass shots of Cade's daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) wearing short shorts. Cade comments on this at one point early in the film, telling her she shouldn't wear them that short, but she more or less ignores him, much to the camera's delight. In fact it would seem that the whole film is onboard with the assumption that underage girls (Tessa is seventeen) make great onscreen sex objects -- only Cade himself, gruff old traditionalist that he is, raises any objection to this. Yet his paternal over-protectiveness reads as incredibly old-fashioned in 2014 and in any case he is too busy posing for Budweiser product placements in front of American flags in every other fucking scene of this movie to even notice that his daughter is dating Shane (Jack Reynor), a badass race-car driver guy. If he hasn't noticed that, how is he going to be able to keep tabs on what she's wearing?

Aside from wearing the aforementioned shorts, Tessa's main role in the film is to cower like a victim in or around cars so that male characters like Cade and Shane can rescue her.

"Konnichiwa! I am Drift, an Orientalist stereotype of a Japanese samurai!"

On the racial front, Age of Extinction continues Michael Bay's trend of perpetuating racist stereotypes in the Orientalism that pervades the film. Drift (Ken Watanabe) is portrayed as a Japanese samurai stereotype, spouting platitudes about inner peace in broken, heavily accented English and calling Optimus Prime "sensei."

Along this same line, the film's third act takes place in Beijing, a city mainly depicted here as "developing nation poverty porn" with dinosaurs (dinobots!) dwelling in the nearby jungle. Look, kids! China is a mystical land filled with ancient prehistoric creatures and alluring young hookers who emerge unexpectedly from elevators! (That last thing really happens in the movie, in a throwaway gag meant to remind us that East Asian women exist to be erotically objectified.)

Brains (Reno Wilson) is a shrimpy blackface minstrel -- he is Jar-Jar Binks 
re-imagined as an autobot. 

And do we even need to talk about the shrimpy captive autobot Brains? Surely by now we can all spot a racist minstrel show when we see one?

Thus, in the end, despite a fun couple of hours spent heckling it, I must agree with the Red Letter Media guys' indirect review of Transformers 4: it is really not necessary viewing unless you are a die-hard fan of the franchise or are interested in seeing a Michael Bay film that doesn't give you a splitting headache.

But then again, I appear to be in the minority, since Transformers: Age of Extinction was the worldwide highest-grossing film of last year.

So fuck me!

"Hurry up, honey! There's more black people we need to go throw rocks at!"

UPDATE 03/22/2015: Film blogger Tom Holmes agrees with my general assessment, placing Transformers 4 at Number Five on his "Bottom 10" list for 2014. From Tom's capsule review: "The best thing I can say about [Transformers: Age of Extinction] is that it is likely the last Michael Bay directed Transformers movie. When all of your promotional material for the movie puts emphasis on the Dinobots, and you don't use them until there is thirty minutes left in your nearly three hour movie, you've royally fucked up."

* I saw the first Transformers (2007) in the theater, Revenge of the Fallen (2009) once it reached Netflix, and made it about twenty minutes into the third movie before I had to quit from sheer boredom and ennui. Therefore I had planned to completely ignore the fourth film but then a former student told me I might actually enjoy it because there was less shaky cam used than in the previous films and therefore the action sequences were comprehensible this time around. That ex-student was right -- thanks for the tip, Steve!
** Sharknado 2 and Transformers: Age of Extinction are remarkably similar movies. In both, a white guy saves his wife and/or daughter from a science-fictional threat that will destroy a major city if he fails. One protagonist (Fin) is fixated on New York style pizza, the other (Cade) on Budweiser products. Both films feature climactic battles atop tall buildings. Sharknado 2 is funnier, more self-aware, less racist (though its sexually assertive black heroine dies), and far less of a brain-punishing time-suck than the Wahlberg film. Sharknado 3 is coming soon -- with THE HOFF!
*** Wahlberg, a former white rapper, has a history of real-life, racially motivated hate crimes