Wild


Reese Witherspoon thinks she's found a place without paparazzi but she's keeping an eye out anyway.

Reese Witherspoon thinks she’s found a place without paparazzi but she’s keeping an eye out anyway.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffman, Keene McRae, Brian van Holt, Cliff De Young, Mo McRae, Will Cuddy, Leigh Parker, Nick Eversman, Ray Mist, Randy Schulman, Cathryn de Prume, Kurt Conroyd, Ted De Chatelet, Jeffee Newman, Art Alexakis, Beth Hall. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Sometimes life throws things at us that we just can’t bear. We make bad choices because of it, go down paths we were never meant to explore and find ourselves lost. Few people can find their way back from these deviations from course.

Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) is a young 26-year-old woman starting an 1,100-mile hike on the rugged but beautiful Pacific Crest Trail which starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian. She only plans on going from the southern terminus into Ashland, Oregon but it’s still a daunting prospect, considering she has virtually no experience whatsoever with long distance hiking.

Cheryl has had some tough times of late. Her mom (Dern) passed away suddenly of cancer. She descended into heroin addiction and unprotected sex with multiple partners. Her marriage to Paul (Sadoski) has ended in divorce. Her life was a mess and she knew it. She felt that she needed to clear all the toxins out of her system by “walking it out” as her mother would have put it. So she decided that, having seen a book on the trail in her local bookstore in Minnesota that this would be her best way to get herself out of the world for a little while, get herself right and move on with her life.

The way isn’t without challenges. Her first day only nets her five miles in a harsh desert climate – at that rate it would take her 220 days to finish her hike – or about 130 more than she thought. She has difficulty setting up her tent – it takes her hours. Then she figures out that she has purchased the wrong fuel for her cookstove, meaning that she’ll have to eat her dehydrated meals as a cold mush. Not particularly appealing. She’s also managed to get boots that are too tight and are causing some major issues.

There are other pitfalls as well, many of them human – men who want to get into her pants, by flattery or by force. She feels incredibly lonely and there is little to do but think about what got her there in the first place. With a bulldog-like persistence and a toughness that would surprise anyone who thought this petite blonde had any in her, she adapts and overcomes, winning over admirers on the trail – but the question is will this be enough to change her life?

Vallee, whose last film (Dallas Buyers Club) won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, might just repeat that feat here. Witherspoon with already one statuette to her credit for Walk the Line is absolutely wonderful here, eschewing Hollywood glamour for the realism of trail life and the tawdry existence that preceded it. She is in nearly every scene, often alone, This is her film to carry and carry it she does, imbuing Cheryl with vulnerability which eventually becomes an inner toughness.

Dern also turns in an award-worthy performance as the optimistic mom who has enough inner strength to raise two children alone after leaving an abusive alcoholic husband. She is reinventing herself when her life takes a tragic turn but for the most part she remains a breath of fresh air throughout, trying to soldier on despite having almost no money. She is representative of a million single moms out there, although I would have to say that I don’t think many would have the sort of life philosophy that Bobbi (Cheryl’s mom) had.

Vallee tells the story mainly through a sequence of flashbacks which take many different forms. Some are mere flashes, only lasting a second or two while others are fully formed scenes that play in Cheryl’s mind. Others are things her mind is on concurrent to the events of her hike, happening silently. Cheryl narrates from her journal and leaves messages at way stations, quoting diverse authors and poets. She becomes something of a celebrity on the trail, being one of the few women hiking alone and certainly the only one hiking alone on as much of it as she is.

The cinematography by Yves Belanger is breathtaking, but then again he has quite the canvas to work with. The music is simple and non-treacly, often using popular songs by artists like Paul Simon and the Hollies to pull the story along. Nick Hornsby’s script is smart and well-reasoned for the most part but one of the main objections I have to the movie is the lack of connection from A to B to C. We know that Cheryl sinks into a morass of alcohol, heroin and unprotected sex after her mom passes away but we don’t see how that happens; one moment she’s caring for her mom, the next she’s finding out she passed away, the next she’s sitting in a bar trolling for men and the next she’s shooting up. We see the descent in bits and pieces, like a book with pages missing. The ascent is much more drawn out.

While this isn’t the best film to come out in 2014, it has some of the best performances in it. Witherspoon alone is reason enough to catch this movie in theaters while it’s still out there – the scenery is also best seen on a big screen. Definitely one that should be on your must-see list this season.

REASONS TO GO: A searing performance by Witherspoon, nearly certain to get an Oscar nomination if not the win and Dern may well join her. Gorgeous cinematography. Incredible story.
REASONS TO STAY: Never really get a sense of why Cheryl moves from one mindset to another.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content, a fair amount of nudity, some drug use and a good deal of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Cheryl Strayed appears in the film as the woman driving the truck who drops off Reese Witherspoon at the beginning of the film. Also, the daughter of Cheryl Strayed plays Cheryl as a little girl in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tracks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Rid of Me


The dark side of Katie O'Grady.

The dark side of Katie O’Grady.

(2011) Dramedy (Phase 4/Submarine) Katie O’Grady, Art Alexakis, Theresa Russell, John Keyser, Storm Lange, Melik Malkasian, Betty Moyer, John Breen, Orianna Herrman, Ritah Parrish, Melinda Chilton, Geno Romo, Angie Rutan, Julie Vhay, Cora Benesh, Emily Galash, Jana Lee Hamblin, Brendan Robinson, Leslie Taylor, Adrienne Vogel. Directed by James Westby

They say hell hath no fury as a woman scorned and there is some truth to that. However, if you’re the scorned woman, how do you get to the point where you become more furious than Hell itself?

Meris Canfield (O’Grady) seems to have a rock-solid marriage with her husband Mitch (Keyser). They have recently moved from Southern California to the small Oregon town where Mitch grew up. Everyone there seems to have married their high school sweetheart and mousy Meris suddenly becomes the odd woman out. Despite her best intentions, the snobby clique that Mitch was part of freeze her out and she realizes that they have more in common with Mitch than she does.

History can bite you in the ass in that regard and Mitch decides that he would have been better off with his high school girlfriend Briann (Lange) so he divorces Meris and it’s out with the old, in with the new. Or maybe out with the new, in with the old if you look at it a certain way.

In any case, Meris isn’t willing at first to give up – she still loves Mitch. But as she gets a job at a candy store and her obsessive and compulsive stalking of her ex grows more pathetic, she falls in with a bunch of punk girls. The Pacific Northwest, you might recall, was Ground Zero for the riot grrl movement and ladies are grown non-conformist out there.

As Meris becomes more enamored of the culture of these punks she begins to learn more about who she is as a person and more importantly, who she wants to be. What she wants is to be a great big middle finger to society and to her POS husband and his snooty friends who quite frankly are the sort of people that you really wish bad things would happen to.

This is all about Meris’ growth as a person and you need someone strong in the role – someone who can play mousy, conformist and something of a wanna-be Stepford Wife, but also someone who is just as comfortable as a street urchin/punk goddess/what are YOU looking at sort. O’Grady makes every phase of Meris’ development realistic and believable. I don’t know O’Grady’s work well but if this is any indication, you should keep a sharp eye out for any other movie she’s done.

My issue with the film lies with the director. Too many camera tricks, unnecessary zooms, and movement otherwise known as “Look Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. That kind of thing can be a sign of a director who is lacking the confidence in his own abilities to tell a story and has to resort to all sorts of visual gimmickry to get noticed – trust me Mr. Westby, you’ve got what it takes. You don’t need to get all gimmicky on us to make the movie worth seeking out.

In any case, this is one of those films that you’ve probably never heard of but nonetheless is worthy of the attention of any film buff. This isn’t the kind of movie that reinvents the wheel, but O’Grady’s performance is simply put, unforgettable.

WHY RENT THIS: An extraordinary performance by O’Grady. Ruggedly nihilist.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look ma, I’m directing!

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in Multnomah Village near Portland where director Westby has lived most of his life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,740 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trainspotting

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Cold in July

The Other F Word


Lars Frederiken still knows how to swing.

Lars Frederiken still knows how to swing.

(2011) Documentary (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Jim Lindberg, Lars Frederiksen, Tony Escalante, Fat Mike, Art Alexakis, Tony Hawk, Mark Hoppus, Matt Freeman, Ron Reyes, Flea, Brett Gurewitz, Mark Mothersbaugh, Jack Grisham, Josh Freese, Tony Adolescent, Rick Thorn, Greg Hetson. Directed by Andrea Blaugrund Nevins

Cinema of the Heart

It is the nature of misspent youth that we rebel against the things our parents held dear. Maybe the ultimate rebels in that sense were – and are – the punks, who turned their collective tattooed backs on everything our commercially-oriented society held dear.

Those punks though are reaching middle age and have wives, families and mortgages now. This documentary captures these guys at a crossroads where their idealistic youth is colliding with the reality of life and in nearly every instance ideal is giving way to the needs of one’s children, which are considerable.

Jim Lindberg, in particularly, is at a crossroads. The lead singer for Pennywise, one of the most successful punk bands out there, he like many musicians has been forced to spend increasing amounts of time touring in order to make ends meet, but that’s becoming more and more of a problem for his family obligations. He clearly loves his family – but he clearly loves his band as well. Something is going to have to give and it isn’t much of an issue. He announces that he’s leaving Pennywise.

Lars Frederiksen of Rancid still sports leopard-patterned hair and tats but has a sweet boy that is his entire world. He looks far more dangerous than he is – but when he enters a park to play with a son the other parents leave pretty quickly. That’s okay with Lars – he doesn’t mind getting some one-on-one time with his son and having no lines at the swing set is only an extra added bonus.

Duane Peters of the mid-level band U.S. Bombs has several children but his son Chess was his oldest. When Chess died in a car accident, Peters – a veteran skateboarder and singer with a variety of bands on the skate punk scene – fell apart. He became suicidal and when discussing that period in his life, it’s obvious the wound is still raw.

But mostly it is about guys outside the mainstream trying to provide a life that’s as close to normal as their kids as is possible. Most of these guys had childhoods that were far from that and they’re determined to give their kids the support and love that they didn’t get themselves. You get a sense that while yeah these guys can be aggressive about their ideology and look pretty damn intimidating, they’re still basically nice guys.

We get a pretty wide range of punks and extreme sports guys from the famous (Tony Hawk) to the largely unknown outside of the punk rock community. The relationships with their kids varies; some of these guys are surprisingly disciplinarians while others are kind of new age in their child-rearing philosophies.

We see the dads in their punk rock lives (although some of them, like Black Flag’s Ron Reyes, has moved on from music and gone to different professions) and also in their home lives. There are a lot of interviews, like Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers talking about the birth of his daughter inspiring him to give up drugs and alcohol.

Some of the movie is pretty lighthearted but a few scenes are truly moving. Throughout there’s a kind of goofy charm. Sure there’s that fish out of water element where we see punks adjusting to the real world (which seems to piss off some critics who don’t get that people change as they get older) but that’s not all that this movie is about. What it really is about is how kids can change even the most out there of people – people who reject even the most basic of society’s norms can have their hearts changed in an instant by the birth of their child.

The mother-child bond is often idealized, particularly in the movies and there’s no doubt the power of a mother’s love may well be the strongest relationship there is. However, the bond between a father and his children is often overlooked. For many little girls, their first valentine is their daddy and indeed the affections of a dad for his kids, while often expressed poorly, is no less deep or lasting.

This is one of those movies that remind you about that bond and that guys, doofuses though we may be, have it within us to be surprisingly sweet. Those moments can keep you ladies coming back to us guys for more, even though we may forget our anniversary date or need help finding where the extension cords are. In my book that makes this movie something to be treasured.

WHY RENT THIS: A really good look at fatherhood in unusual circumstances at times. Lindberg and Peters are distinctly moving.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might put off some punk rock fanatics.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a pretty fair amount of cursing and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The making of the movie was inspired by Lindberg’s book Punk Rock Dad which is referenced somewhat here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some performance clips for a number of the bands presented here (including Lindberg’s post-Pennywise project Black Pacific) as well as some pretty interesting outtakes, including one involving Dr. Drew Pinsky. There’s also a 15-minute Q&A session from South by Southwest that I wouldn’t have minded going on longer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53,714 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this movie wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Pianist