Ever since Sean Penn burst onto the scene in 1982 with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he’s cast himself as the outsider, not just as far as Hollywood is concerned, but in society as well. Certainly, that’s led him to interesting and powerful performances over the course of his career, while causing other critics – Tom Carson of GQ in particular – to say he’s lost his sense of joy and humor. I would dispute that, but I have to admit there’s a self-serving nature to not only his rebellious streak, but also the idea only males railing against society, or suffering a life crisis, are ideas good enough to tell stories about. What makes Into the Wild, his fourth outing as writer/director (not counting the short film he did for the September 11 anthology), his strongest film in those capacities is for the first time since his writing/directing debut, The Indian Runner, he’s combining that rebellious streak with a more nuanced version of the rest of the world.
In this film, the story is a true one. Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) seemed to have it all – born to well-off parents Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden), he became a top student and athlete (running cross-country), but also started to question and reject the middle-class values he was brought up with. After graduation, he gave away most of his money to Oxfam, and started on a journey around the country, with the idea that he’d wind up in Alaska and live off the land (he also started calling himself Alexander Supertramp). As documented in the book by Jon Krakauer, who was in full sympathy with McCandless’ spiritual and physical journey, McCandless may have intended to live a Thoreau-like life of solitude, but he also interacted with a great many people who enjoyed his company, such as Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker), a hippie couple living in a trailer park, Ron (Hal Holbrook), a retiree who came to think of McCandless as an adopted grandson, and Wayne (Vince Vaughn), a farmer he once worked with (the film is narrated half the time by McCandless through his letters to Wayne – that he never sends – and half by his sister Carine (Jenna Malone). All of that ended when McCandless died in Alaska, and his body was found months later. Both Krakauer and Penn believe McCandless merely ate some poisoned berries and lacked the knowledge to counteract that, while others felt he died of the hubris of anyone who tries to be “one with nature.”
This, of course, begs the question – is it possible to like the film even if you think McCandless is full of shit? I myself was skeptical about McCandless, until I remembered how my brother sort of felt like he did, as did one of my former co-workers, about living life solely as you might have read about not only in books of naturalists like Thoreau and Jack London, but also of the great authors like Tolstoy. And I believe everyone except the most hard-bitten urbanites have fantasized about heading off by yourself into the great unknown – whether this is merely typical adolescent behavior or the uniquely American questing spirit is open to debate, but it’s there, I believe. Still, while Penn is definitely in sympathy with McCandless, he is mature enough to realize McCandless had set himself up with quite an existence even before he headed to Alaska. Every character McCandless encounters is treated sympathetically (even a ranger who forbids him to paddle down the river in a canoe is merely seen as doing his job), and the ones he becomes closest to – Jan, Rainey, Tracy (Kristen Stewart), the teen who lived near Jan and Rainey and who developed a crush on McCandless, Wayne, and especially Ron – all would have been happy if he had stayed in their lives. Even Walt and Billie are given more nuance as the film progresses – they start out being one-dimensional materialists, and we see their marriage is not the most ideal in the world, but as they search for their son, we see their genuine grief over his loss.
All of this wouldn’t matter without such a strong performance by Hirsch in the main role. There are always a number of lead male performances who are left empty-handed when Oscar nominations are announced simply because there is so much good work being done right now, and Hirsch, who had impressed me in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys but had done little impressive since, burrows himself completely into the character. It’s easy to see why people responded to McCandless because of the force of personality Hirsch brings to him; even if you don’t agree with his outlook, he’s warm and engaging, and responds well to the people who take him in. Everyone else in the cast is terrific as well, especially Keener and Holbrook, who brings his usual irascibility to make his role of the wise old man move past cliché. Also, Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries) capture the spirit of the outdoors that McCandless and like-minded people find so appealing (augmented by Eddie Vedder’s song score, which was unjustly ignored at Oscar time). You may not want to take the journey McCandless took, especially because of how it ended, but Into the Wild does make you reflect on the road not taken in your own life.
Is Marla Olmstead, the four-year-old painter whose work sold for several thousand dollars, a genuine child prodigy or a hoax, helped by her father? Should parents of a child prodigy push the child, or hold them back? Is so-called “modern” art real art, or is it just hypocrisy on parade? Can a documentary filmmaker, no matter how objective they claim to be, ever really capture the “truth”? Those are just a few of the questions posed by the fascinating documentary My Kid Could Paint That, and things become even more confusing when you find out the director, Amir Bar-Lev, felt he was getting too close to his subjects to find the real truth (in a sense, Olmstead’s parents Mark and Laura kept him around to give the world their side of the story).
It all started when young Marla picked up a paintbrush and followed the footsteps of her dad, Mark, an amateur painter with a soon-to-be-discovered talent for promotion and being a stage parent. So the story goes, Mark loaned the paintings to a coffeehouse run by a friend of his, and when customers liked them enough to want to buy them, Elizabeth Cohen, a local journalist, wrote a piece on her, Anthony Brunelli, a local gallery owner (the Olmsteads lived in Binghamton) did a show of her work, and a celebrity was born. Then 60 Minutes II did a segment on her, featuring Charlie Rose interviewing a child psychologist insisting Marla could not have painted those works by herself – and a hidden camera seemed to prove her point. Things weren’t helped when the Olmsteads decided to put out a DVD several months later, along with another exhibition of Marla’s work, that purported to prove once and for all Marla really was the genuine author of her works, and not her father. Nor was it helped by Brunelli, who at first seemed to be an enthusiastic booster of Marla, now acting as if he was in on the so-called scam all along just to pull the lid off the “scam” of modern art (an idea New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, who, along with Cohen, is the most fascinating interview in the film, discusses at length).Bar-Lev is too self-aware not to be troubled by the implications of his involvement in all this – he not only includes Kimmelman and Cohen warning him about being able to find the “truth” in all of this, but also a telling scene where Laura, who has always had qualms about Marla’s celebrity, breaks down and then mutters, “Documentary gold”. Still, I think sometimes Bar-Lev could have gone deeper into his subjects, especially into the idea of whether modern art itself is a scam (it’s not quite analogous, but avant-garde musicians and filmmakers also run into this kind of skepticism). In this sense, My Kid Could Paint That could serve as kind of a companion piece to the earlier documentary Who the F*#% is Jackson Pollock? – both films not only question the idea of modern art, but also who is qualified to judge them. Bar-Lev’s film is strongest when dealing with the family dynamics, and the way we treat children with “special talent.” As Cohen astutely points out (and as Laura despairs), no matter what happened, Marla would never really be an ordinary child again, and that’s something to mourn.
Sometimes in movies, there’s a scene crystallizing everything that makes the movie so good (or conversely, so bad). In Susanne Bier’s Things We Lost in the Fire, that scene comes about 2/3 of the way into the film. The story by Alan Loeb concerns two lost souls: Audrey (Halle Berry), a recent widow when her husband Brian (David Duchovny) is killed while he tries to break up a fight, and Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), Brian’s former friend, a drug addict struggling to stay clean. Against her better instincts (she never understood why Brian continued to help Jerry), she invites Jerry to stay with her and her children Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry, who is no relation to Halle), partly because it’ll give Jerry a chance to get back on his feet, and partly because she needs help with Harper and Dory since she can hardly help herself. Jerry does take the children under his wing, and even helps Dory, who is afraid of swimming, because he doesn’t want to put his head under water. It’s after this moment, when Jerry helps Dory conquer his fear, that the scene between Audrey and Jerry occurs that made me take notice of the movie. Instead of being grateful, she lashes out at him – that should have been Brian teaching Dory to put his head underwater, and not Jerry, and he had no right to do that. And yes, Jerry’s struggling with his own demons, but he isn’t Dory’s father.
It’s scenes like that one that lift Things We Lost in the Fire above the soap opera that many critics accused it of being. Bier and Loeb may be treading familiar ground here, but they hit almost all the right notes in doing so. Jerry and Audrey don’t fall in love, and while they ultimately do find healing, the film is smart in how they get there. Admittedly, Brian’s character is too good to be true, and Duchovny doesn’t do much with his role to make him more interesting. But every other character is invested with reality, including Audrey’s neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch, far removed from his creepy suspect in Zodiac), trapped in an unhappy marriage and eager to help Jerry out, to Kelly (Alison Lohman), an addict who has feelings for Jerry. And Bier and cinematographer Tom Stern (Letters From Iwo Jima) don’t shoot this like a TV movie, but with a lyrical style that doesn’t impose feelings on the characters, but allows them to come to the surface on their own. As for the performances, it’s expected that Del Toro shines in playing another flawed character who nevertheless is a good person. Berry is the surprise here; she admittedly has made bad choices after winning her Oscar (Perfect Stranger), but she also falls under the trap of “if she’s that good-looking, she can’t act,” and I think she gets past that here. There are few obvious scenes of her dealing with her grief until the end, and those are earned. Mostly, she plays Aubrey as hesitant and lost, and does so in a quite subtle manner. As I mentioned before, Things We Lost in the Fire was unfairly dumped by critics and ignored by moviegoers who thought it would be too much of a downer. I hope it gets a better chance on DVD.
I don’t know why Sidney Lumet’s debut feature film, 12 Angry Men, is being released in a 50th anniversary edition, when the logical thing would have been to do so last year (that same problem was also illustrated with the anniversary editions of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Tootsie). Nevertheless, it’s always good to have this on DVD. Yes, it’s schematic, and yes, as Alan Dershowitz pointed out in an American Film article about 20 years ago, there’s no way a juror would have been able to bring a knife into the jury room. Still, this drama of one lone juror (Henry Fonda) trying to convince his fellow jurors to actually debate the evidence before they vote guilty against a defendant remains powerful, with great acting by Fonda, Lee J. Cobb (as Fonda’s most outspoken opponent), E.G. Marshall (as his most rational one), and the rest of the cast. Certainly better to do this one than the other major re-release this week, Mrs. Doubtfire. Chris Columbus’ movie may not have been the movie that started Robin Williams on the road to only doing shtick in his comedies (after all, Toys had been released the year before), but it certainly didn’t help the cause. And while the shtick is funny here, as when Williams pretends to be various people calling to interview for the nanny his ex-wife (Sally Field) wants to hire, the sentiment of the movie is pretty hard to take.