Writers: Nick Hornby (screenplay), Cheryl Strayed (book)
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman
Release date: December 5th, 2014
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running time: 115 minutes
Best part: Reese Witherspoon.
Worst part: The frustrating flashbacks.
Any movie placing the word ‘wild’ in its title – no matter how big, small, good, or bad – is taking a major risk before release. Tackling one of cinema’s most popular adjectives, this word is a cliche not worth tripping over. Though fulfilled heartily in The Wild Bunch and The Wild One, movies like Wild Hogs, Wild, Wild West, and The Wild highlight this trope’s overt simplicity. Oscar-hungry drama Wild, grappling wholeheartedly with the cliche, appears wholly obvious and generic.
Despite the title’s simplicity, there’s a saying everyone should cling onto before seeing Wild: you can’t judge a book by its cover. In fact, the movie’s poster is surprisingly simple. Presenting its lead character, the American wilderness, and neat stylistic choices, the poster promises everything audiences expect nowadays from small-budget performance pieces. Fortunately, despite its many flaws, this walkabout is worth taking. Just make sure to see it with an open mind and a box of tissues. Wild delivers a story drenched in heart, heartache, and heartbreak. Our poster-hogging character is thirty/forty-something traveller Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon). After a string of poor choices, disappointing outcomes, and failed reboots, Strayed decides to venture down a well-known, well-worn path. Walking the United States’ notorious, over-1000-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from the US-Mexico border in California to the US-Canada border in Washington State, Strayed fashions her three-month trip as the ultimate jumpstart. Having divorced nice-guy husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), Strayed reflects upon her adulterous indiscretions and addiction problems. Along the way, we see – via flashback – Strayed interacting with optimistic mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and snarky brother Leif (Keene McRae).
Witherspoon’s haunting artistic journey.
On her tumultuous trip through America’s unrelenting mid-section, Strayed meets several bright and enthusiastic characters serving as significant bursts of energy. In recent cinema history, survival-thrillers/road-trip flicks have relied on roller-coaster-like pacing, visceral gore, blockbuster storytelling tropes, and CGI-driven worlds. Dodging Life of Pi‘s visual stimulus, Tracks‘ sweeping scope, and Cast Away‘s volleyball/Angry Tom Hanks sequences, Wild carries is tried-and-true formula across the windy, dangerous path less taken. Shifting gracefully between major plot-points and interactions, director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) bolsters this ombre tale with a real-world approach. Similarly to The Way, the movie’s grounded narrative analyses one of history’s most sumptuous activities. Despite Hollywood and the general public’s lack of interest in the PCT, this drama – based on Strayed’s real-life memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – makes a compelling argument for travelling, spiritual guidance, and self-worth. Across the vast stretch of land, the movie falls for Strayed’s gripping adventure. learning whilst doing, our hero seeks human interaction, core strength, and re-birth. Finally, another well-intentioned female character! Proving the journey is more valuable than the destination, the story, revolving around her intensifying character arc, is worthwhile. Despite this, the heavy-handed symbolism – outlined by Strayed’s run-ins with a poorly-rendered creature – adds little to the story or message.
“I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here.” (Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), Wild).
Witherspoon pleading for more Oscar buzz.
Infatuated with the Western world’s untouched landscapes, the European filmmaker fuses its gut-wrenching story with a thought-provoking agenda and sterling comedic jaunts. Like with his preceding effort, his style draws life from generic plot-points and characters. Trudging the arduous dirt path, as the movie switches from lively road-trip flick to dour relationship-drama/character study, Vallee, Witherspoon, and screenwriter Nick Hornby hold our interest throughout the 115-minute run-time. In the first scene, we get an uncompromising glimpse into Strayed’s cruel world. Strayed, stranded on top of a rocky hillside in an undisclosed location, pulls off her sock, rips off an infected toenail, before watching one of her boots tumble down a steep hillside. From there, Vallee and Witherspoon’s project pins us down and never lets go. Obviously, credit belongs to Witherspoon for shredding her starry persona. Grappling with a reprehensible character, the A-lister attacks each scene with award-worthy bravado. Despite its overwhelming positives, its story-telling and technical flourishes distort the narrative. Giving its supporting players little screen-time, the movie’s cold, lifeless flashbacks paint broad strokes. In addition, its pro-feminism message renders many the male characters mute and/or abrasive. However, it difficult to avoid the movie’s crisp, unrelenting locations. Yves Belanger’s wondrous cinematography – along with the immense scenic vistas – develop a momentous sensory assault.
Honouring its succinct title, Wild tells a haunting and visceral tale of man, nature, and existence. Valle, following up his 2013 Oscar contender, moulds an impactful and wondrous drama out of this profound true story. Aided by Witherspoon’s heart-breaking performance, the movie’s comedic moments and emotional resonance overshadow the minor flaws. Like our lead’s topsy-turvy career, the movie surges fourth despite the odds.
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach
Release date: November 15th, 2013
Distributor: Paramount Vantage
Running time: 114 minutes
Best part: The eclectic performances.
Worst part: The discomforting tonal shifts.
What exactly defines a director’s ‘body of work’? A signature style? A high-minded agenda? A rise or fall in overall quality? Simple answer: all of the above. This energetic term refers to a director’s all-encompassing works becoming cognitive parts of a much larger odyssey. One director sporting a stellar and eclectic filmography is Alexander Payne. Since I fondly appreciate his acclaimed works, I refuse to make a dim-witted pun about his last name. In fact, despite his rich and irritable cynicism, his movies speak the truth about monumental issues. Payne, with Nebraska, takes a wild detour back to his old stomping grounds.
Bruce Dern & Will Forte.
Thankfully, 2013’s Best Director nominees have charged head-on into informative and alarming topics. From Spike Jonze’s scintillating work in Her to Steve McQueen’s transcendent efforts in 12 Years a Slave, these filmmakers transformed a humble crop of dramas into the past decade’s greatest Oscar nominees. Payne, shooting previous Oscar seasons into the stratosphere, knows how this process works. Gracefully, the likeable and vague director writes love letters to his younger self. His movie’s personal touches hint at gargantuan promises and immense surprises. Thankfully, they all work to his movies’ advantage. Here, Payne places his heart on the line, and is almost willing to stomp on it himself to prove a point. The move follows a disgruntled family aching for change. In the opening scene, a decrepit and alcoholic old timer, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is caught wondering the streets of Billings, Montana. Brought into the local police precinct, Grant is convinced he’s hit the jackpot. Carrying a sweepstakes scam letter in his jacket pocket, Grant strives to retrieve his staggering $1 million ‘winnings’. With Grant’s frustrated son David (Will Forte) forced to pick him up and drop him back to his lively residence, Grant’s literal and figurative demons become abundantly clear.
Prodded by his wife Kate (June Squibb) at debilitating moments, his anger ever-so-slowly rises to the surface. Despite Grant’s bizarre behaviour, David, running away from his own problems, drops everything to take his unhinged father on this mind-boggling journey. Payne fuses modernity and tradition in this kooky dramedy. In creating this dreamscape, the priceless director reaches into his ol’ bag of tricks. Nebraska instills his electrifying filmography’s more distinctive kinks. Like Sideways and The Descendants, the narrative rests its transformative quirks on one quaint road trip. Obsessed with road trips, deceptive schemes, and irritating family units, Payne’s style is brought to the forefront of this ageless and touching familial drama. However, despite my intentions, ageless may be the wrong word. This Best Picture nominee, like Philomena, examines people of vastly different age groups. Commenting on cliches and hearsay, the movie quashes any preconceptions about the elderly community. Yes, the elderly characters in Nebraska do yell at younger people and regale family members with tiresome tales. However, they choose do so because of hard work and free will. First time feature writer Bob Nelson gives these retirees distinctive traits and empathetic shades. Tugging at heartstrings and brain cells, Nebraska‘s fruitful narrative comments on an era as old as the movie’s lead character. Convinced this shade of Middle America could become obsolete, Payne’s emphatic direction hurls the movie’s issues into the spotlight. Pushing against the grain, the movie’s gritty conflicts and resolutions inject observational comedic moments and intriguing personalities into the sprawling narrative. Contrasting personalities, defined by life-altering decisions and brash revelations, add emotional depth to this otherwise discomforting tale.
“I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!” (Kate Grant (June Squibb), Nebraska).
Unfortunately, whilst returning to familiar territory, Payne doesn’t delve into anything original. The story, reminiscent of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Paris, Texas, builds a cavalcade of overtly sentimental moments and tiresome cliches. Heading back to Grant’s hometown of Hawthorne, long-dead conflicts, long lost loves, and caricatures come out to greet him. Buying into Grant’s peculiar antics, the vultures – led by Grant’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) – circle the unenthusiastic and ignorant lead character. Payne, refusing to sugarcoat certain situations and details, oddly embraces and rejects nostalgia and lower-middle class America simultaneously. This multi-millionaire – commenting on small-town America and economic turmoil – indulges in his perfunctory material. Aged care, family values, and the American dream are small fragments of Payne’s shattered perspective. However, despite the overwhelming agenda, Payne’s startling visual style and attention to detail stand above the conventional screenplay. Ambitiously shot in Black in White, Phedon Papamichael’s glorious cinematography lends poetic beauty to this cynical dramedy. Embedding itself into the consciousness within the first few minutes, the black and white photography turns a simplistic melodrama into a multidimensional character study. In addition, the quirky and efficient score lends gravitas to this comforting road trip. Plunking away, folk-blues sounds waft over certain sequences like none other. Hats off to Payne for that choice. Fortunately, the performances, more so than the visuals, hurls the audience into this darkly comic tale. Dern, an indie drama darling, establishes his immense prowess. Despite being the outsider in this year’s Best Actor list, his enigmatic and subtle performance elevates every scene. Saturday Night Live graduate Forte delivers his greatest performance as the miserable and amicable David. His character – picked on by sex-offending cousins, steely-eyed enemies, and rambunctious elderly relatives – is a step above most in this nostalgic romp. Squibb excels in her disarming role. Pushing her relatives to breaking point, her character becomes a terrible person doing commendable things. Meanwhile, Breaking Bad‘s Bob Odenkirk nicely rounds out the cast as the family’s more successful son.
Nebraska, despite the quaint charm and ingenious performances, is far from your typical comedic farce. Payne, not one to hide from the truth, places his thoughts and ideas in full view. His frankly modest perspective makes his characters walk that fine line between chaos and control. With Dern, Forte, and Squibb’s charisma saving all-important scenes, this eclectic road-trip dramedy transitions into a potent and thematically relevant adventure. Though not deserving of its Best Picture nomination, the movie, like its main character, is crazy in the sanest possible way.
Stars: Timmy Creed, Paul Courtney, Tj Griffin, Don Wycherley
Release date: August 17th, 2012
Distributors: Olive Films, Cinemax
Running time: 90 minutes
Best part: The sibling relationships.
Worst part: The underdeveloped supporting characters.
Very few films have powerfully focused on the positives and negatives to come out of the passing of a loved one. This solemn part of existence is illustrated in My Brothers with a delicacy rarely seen in modern drama. Paying homage to Stand by Me and Star Wars, this love letter to 70s/80s Hollywood comes from a profound place of love and imagination. Bolstered by three solemn yet ambitious lead characters, this road trip comedy reaches for the more meaningful aspects of existence.
With the imminent death of their ill father, three brothers react differently and affectingly to their current predicament. Noel (Timmy Creed) feels punishingly afflicted with sudden responsibility when faced with his family’s future. Paudie (Paul Courtney) avoids the situation through immature behaviour. While Scwally (T.J. Griffin) is a naive young boy connected to a cheap toy lightsaber, despite having never seen Star Wars. To redeem their once happy connection with their father, the three brothers travel to a seaside town to replace his broken watch. With an unbalanced array of personalities and sombre feelings towards their current situation, the experiences and recollections they encounter may positively change their unsteady relationship.
Creed, Paul Courtney & Tj Griffin.
My Brothers is a touching, charming yet sombre examination of family, memory, death and redemption. Paul Fraser (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) has directed this solemn yet inspirational road trip film with a powerful emotional connection. The sombre tone, created through gorgeous cinematography capturing every raindrop and dirt road on their journey through rich, green hills, assuredly develops this story of the importance of both life and death. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, in which three different stories of people affected by death fail to develop a powerful emotional connection to its important themes, the three brothers aren’t simply aiming for a relief from their current predicament, but aim to effectively tie up loose ends with one powerful act. With the watch symbolising their family’s happiness and responsibility, its repair will ultimately bring the three of them together despite their imminent loss of family connection. The acoustic soundtrack and wildly differing personalities clashing throughout their journey effectively capture an authentic representation of youth in lower class Ireland.
“If daddy dies in the holidays, do we still get time off from school when we go back?” (Scwally (Tj Griffin), My Brothers).
The road trip.
With a window into family happiness at tail ends of the film contrasting their currently crumbling lives, the three brothers are developed as realistically flawed yet loveable characters. Much like the works of J.J. Abrams and Wes Anderson, they not only provide gripping and believable performances but feel like representations of the director’s childhood experience. Their clashing personalities and poignant issues powerfully affect their families’ structure, yet their ailments allow for genuine comedic moments. They become more believable with every van malfunction, expression of bodily function and revelation of inner thoughts and desires. The characters also symbolise a separation between imagination and reality. The transformational Stand By Me elements of their journey on the road to personal development and realisation, along with Scwally’s immense infatuation with an important item, define important issues created by youth when faced with unavoidable experiences and difficult yet vital decisions.
My Brothers, a current hit at film festivals around the world, is an emotionally gripping experience. The sympathetic characters and bittersweet narrative create a realistic representation of the dramatic shifts in any desperate family when faced with loss.
Verdict: An emotionally powerful journey of family connection.
Writers: Alexander Payne, Mat Faxon, Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster
Release date: November 18, 2011
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running time: 115 minutes
Best part: The charismatic performances.
Worst part: The laboured pace.
George Clooney seems to enjoy playing the common working man; appearing perfectly fine on the outside but damaged and wanting more on the inside. He once again visits this character’s journey of self discovery and change in The Descendants, a film about letting your personal life spiral out of control when focusing on professional but less important matters.
Clooney Plays Matt King, a Lawyer facing several major problems at once. His wife is in a deep coma after a boating accident and has a problem letting her go before their marital problems are resolved. He must also finalise a deal for the sale of 25, 000 acres of Hawaiian land owned by his ancestors. This disrupts the already troubled relationship between him and his two rebellious daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), who continually ignore his every rule and request. Thankfully the film never steers into largely corny or depressing territory.
Shailene Woodley & Nick Krause.
Based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) creates a very charming, funny, yet sentimental view of a family in crisis. The very human drama and characters propel this film above others of its type. The awkward situations and conversations are directed delicately, leading to a hilarious response from more than one party every time. Clooney plays its straight as a down to Earth guy struggling to keep his head above water. The desperation to balance all of his conflicts makes you forget about Clooney’s real life cool cat persona. His relationship with his daughters and Alex’s dopey friend Sid (Nick Krause) is the strongest element as the clash of duelling personalities defines the importance of family connections. Much like Payne’s earlier films, The Descendants‘ characters place their personalities in full view, making them both sympathetic and detestable at the same time. Woodley delivers a stand out debut performance as Alex, succinctly expressing anger for her parent’s mistakes. The relationship between Matt and Alex develops throughout the film as they try to find the answers to multiple problems while repairing the shattered state of their family.
“Hey, I’m doing you a favour. I could go out there and fuck you up, so get a better attitude!” (Matt King (George Clooney), The Descendants).
Clooney & Beau Bridges.
The beautifully filmed Hawaiian locations provide an emotional contrast to The Descendants‘ story. Matt King’s honest narration in the first act, telling the vision of Hawaii as a ‘paradise’ where it should go, provides a strong foundation of how his mind works in these situations. King’s painfully harsh speech to his comatose wife after finding out her biggest secret illustrates the extent of his agonising situation. Leaving him, meant Matt had to do everything himself instead of just being the ‘back-up parent’. At the same time he tries to be a nice guy but is given nothing but abuse by everyone around him. Characters such as cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), a witty and spiritual hippy-surfer strongly in favour of selling the land, Elizabeth’s angry, ageing father Scott Thorson (Robert Forster) and real estate mogul Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) are both like-able and unlike-able, making them incredibly realistic. Payne’s direction never allows you to dislike the characters despite the uncomfortable emotions directed by them towards Clooney’s determined and blunt character.
Payne, being on of Hollywood’s most interesting and prolific dramedy filmmakers, isn’t afraid to take things personally. His latest effort is a game changer in many respects, making all think a little differently about love, loss, Clooney, and paradise.