This week on The Screen Addict: Reese Witherspoon takes a walk, Eddie Redmayne becomes Stephen Hawking, two foreign imports that will rank high on my forthcoming list of the best films of the year, and the Steve Jobs movie that may never come to fruition. Oh, and did you hear there’s a new Star Wars movie coming?Wild works best as The Reese Witherspoon Show, but fails to distinguish itself otherwise
Last year, Jean-Marc Vallée directed Dallas Buyers Club, a film that will be most remembered for Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar-winning lead performance. There was nothing particularly special about the rest of the film’s content, and the praise for Jared Leto’s supporting turn was slightly overblown, but there’s no denying the power of its main character. One year later, almost the exact same thing can be said about Vallée’s new film Wild. At the center is a turn from Reese Witherspoon that will justifiably receive a lot of acclaim in the coming months, but the film as a whole never quite builds into anything beyond a showcase for its star. It works tremendously well in that regard, and Vallée has some nifty ways of burrowing inside his protagonist’s head, but that turns out to be the full extent of what Wild has to offer.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman recovering from a downward spiral that started with the death of her mother (Laura Dern). This spiral leads to drug use and general reckless behavior, culminating in a divorce from her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), and she decides the best way to rehabilitate herself is to walk the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail, which goes from the Mexico border in California all the way up to Canada. Along the way she meets a variety of characters—mostly perfectly nice men, others less so—and her journey across America’s west coast is intercut with various flashbacks that illustrate just who Cheryl was before this walk began.
Wild is a film full of great character moments, but it completely and totally lacks any sense of surprise. There’s no big reveal that it builds to, and nothing in Cheryl’s past ever knocks us for a loop. Not that there should be some big, shocking twist—that would probably be absurd—but the film exists solely to introduce us to a character and tell us about what brought her to this point. It does so effectively, mostly thanks to Witherspoon, but it never takes a step beyond that. That may not be necessary if the film is content to simply tell its story and move on, but Vallée seems to have ambitions beyond that. Whatever they are, they don’t quite come to fruition.
What the film does best is depict the way Cheryl’s walk is a continuous battle against her memories and demons. Most flashbacks are caused by an offhand remark or an object she encounters, and the film gives these sequences a free-associative vibe that captures what a long, lonely walk like this might be. This makes Wild a compelling watch from start to finish, but only when it reaches the end do the many shortcomings reveal themselves. The final scene is supposed to be some grand catharsis, but it just doesn’t translate. Instead, the film feels like it’s ending just because it has to, and it only highlights how Wild fails to build to anything beyond a collection of moments. Witherspoon may well get awards recognition for her performance, and like McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, it would be richly deserved. However, a pure performance delivery system like this can only leave so much of an impact.
Other new releases:
— The Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything is down-the-middle prestige filmmaking at its most mechanical, and yet the lead performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are spectacular. Redmayne in particular completely transforms himself into Hawking, and the central love story proves to be quite effective in spite of the general blah-ness surrounding it.
— The Australian horror film The Babadook has already gotten a lot of attention, including a rave review from Exorcist director William Friedkin. This acclaim comes with good reason: this is a terrifying film, but it ultimately works because of the clearly-defined and compelling conflict going on in the mind of Essie Davis’ protagonist. It’s a real movie first and a scare machine second, and it’s all the better for it.
— If you want familial horror of the slightly less supernatural variety, then the Swedish drama Force Majeure is the film for you! It’s best experienced cold, but in essence: it’s about a rich, happy family vacationing in the Alps that suddenly finds their relationship poisoned by an unexpected, frightening, but ultimately benign event. Things get uncomfortable fast.
They took our Jobs!
Here’s one thing we need to remember more often: making movies is hard. I don’t just mean that making a good movie is hard. Making any movie is an impressive feat, and not even the biggest names in the business can will a project into development if the stars don’t all align. For the longest time, Steven Spielberg wanted to direct an adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, but it never happened, and now that project seems to be gone for good. Heck, David Fincher seems to get his name attached to millions of projects that never get off the ground, and then you blink and suddenly there’s a finished Gone Girl in theaters. One of the most public unmade movies in recent years is actually a project Fincher was involved with for a while: an untitled Steve Jobs film written by Aaron Sorkin. That sounds like something that would be rushed into production, right? Well, not so fast.
The script, which has been bouncing around for quite some time, is said to only contain three long scenes. This was first reported back in 2012. Since then, this film has gone precisely nowhere, and this film’s tumultuous road to non-production has become quite public in recent months. At first it seemed we were going to get a Social Network reunion with Fincher and Sorkin teaming up to bring it to life. These were simpler times, and since then Fincher walked away, only to be replaced by Danny Boyle. (I like Boyle, but he and Sorkin seem like an odd fit.) The search for the man to play Steve Jobs has been even more difficult. Names such as Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender and even Tom Cruise have been mentioned or attached, but nothing is official. Natalie Portman was involved for a while before walking away, and now the project as a whole has changed hands from Sony to Universal. There are a whole lot of people who want to get this movie made, clearly, but nobody can seem to make it happen.
Plenty of factors have been blamed for this stagnation, including conflicts at Sony that have been revealed with the release of hacked emails in recent days. (I don’t know why so many websites believe posting all this info is okay, but that’s a battle for another day.) I anticipate we may finally get movement on this project soon, but it just goes to show that no project is ever a done deal. Proven names like Aaron Sorkin, David Fincher and Danny Boyle still need a whole lot to work out in order to get something made, and as such we should be thankful that anything of quality ever gets released. Each such occurrence is a minor miracle.
Classic of the Week
With Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings about to arrive, let us look back at cinema’s most famous depiction of the Moses story: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. (Close second: “A Rugrats Passover.”) An important thing to know is that it isn’t particularly useful to watch this film through a modern lens. This is an old-fashioned Hollywood epic through and through, with all the cheese and theatrics that would suggest. The film even begins with a glorious DeMille introduction in which he lays out the story’s religious and historical importance, states the running time, and assures the audience there will be an intermission. As with all color movies from this era, it is glorious to look at, and the absolute sincerity of it all is rather refreshing. So, if you’ve got three and a half hours to spare, a film like this is more than worth the trouble. And frankly, it’s probably twice as enjoyable as Exodus is going to be.
Trailer of the Week
This is not the most timely write up, but in case you are emerging from a two-week vacation under a rock, here is the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, which comes out this time next year. There’s not a whole lot revealed here outside of a couple characters and locations, but nothing more is really necessary. This acts more as an announcement—an assurance that “yes, it’s really happening, and this is more or less what it is going to look like.” This has no bearing on what the quality of the film is going to be, of course, but there will be plenty of time to be disappointed in 2015. For now, let’s sit back, enjoy, and try not to overanalyze that lightsaber.
This film isn’t brand new to On Demand, per se, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’re bored one night and looking for some light, enjoyable viewing. What If is a delightful romantic comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan that shows just how good this genre can still be if you’re able to find the right actors. The premise is nothing special, but these two leads are fantastic together, and director Michael Dowse (Goon) makes yet another comedy that is way better than it has any business being. It didn’t do anything special at the box office, and it likely won’t be remembered for long, but I’m not sure you’ll find a better pure romantic comedy this year.