Sean Penn’s Into The Wild is ostensibly about a young college grad who abandons societal norms, traditional Western aspirations and archetypal beats to live first on the road and eventually in the wilderness, but that’s really only the framework for something more elemental and profound. What I got out of it, thanks to meditative filmmaking and an ensemble cast for the ages, was a quiet, studious anthropologist’s discourse on how many different human beings conform to, tear free from or abide just outside what society deems ‘normal’ or ‘allowed.’ Emile Hirsch’s Christopher McCandless is perhaps the most extreme and outright noticeable example within the cast of characters, a young boy just starting out in life who has decided to flip the proverbial table and rewrite the collective standards of living in our world to suit his strikingly literate, ambitiously philosophical nature. This is one of those films where the main character is on a journey and meets/interacts with many varied, interesting folk along the way. Penn loves to use this motif (check out his masterpiece The Pledge for quite a different version of the idea), is terrific with ensemble casts and many actors of considerable talent thankfully flock to work in his pictures. Christopher’s parents are played by Marcia Gay Harden and a heartbreaking William Hurt, two actors who have never been pinned down into playing one role or typecast, both very clearly the materialistic, compassionate yet volcanically dysfunctional proud suburban parents. Jena Malone is Christopher’s supportive, loving sister and from these relatives he sets out on a cross country journey with Alaska as his endgame, and meets a host of people who could be a collective time capsule of late 80’s/early 90’s Americana. Vince Vaughn is a rowdy farming magnate who takes Christopher in, gives him work and a boisterous big brother presence, for awhile. Kristen Stewart is the teenaged hippie girl he finds romance with in a wistful trailer commune… for awhile. Signe Egholm Olsen and Thure Lindhart are two effervescent European backpackers he shares a watering hole with.. for like ten minutes. Hal Holbrook will break your heart into pieces as a fatherly widower with a tragic past who gives him shelter and paternal companionship.. for a brief time. The running theme here is that Christopher never stays anywhere for long and it soon becomes clear that some human beings, himself included, were simply meant to roam restlessly until their soul finds a place it can be at peace. My favourite among his interactions is that with an ageing hippie couple played by the wonderful Catherine Keener and someone called Brian Dierker, who I’ve never heard of before but makes a striking impression. They’re a loving pair with tragedy in their past who find kinship and parental caring for Christopher, and I felt like if there was one place or group of people on his journey he may have ended up staying with permanently, it would have been them. We all know how this film turns out and what the story tells us, but for me it was a beautifully episodic, sweepingly melodious exploration of human beings and how they interact, migrate about the landscape and find their own customs, relationships and purposes with the lives given to them. There’s a montage right near the end where as we witness Christopher arrive at the final beat of his arc, we also see everyone he met and cared about in life at the exact same moment in time elsewhere, each in various snapshots of joy, anguish, libation or introspection. It’s a brilliantly edited sequence because it sews the final stitches together in a thread of human experiences the film gifts us, and I’ve seldom felt more connected to the “connectedness” of human beings overall than I did in this beautiful sequence. This is a masterpiece, and I won’t even go into the brilliant album composed by Eddie Vedder because we’d be here all day.
Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is one of the most gut wrenching, haunting, stressful experiences one can have watching a film, and I’m only talking about the first ten minutes so far. On a quiet 70’s era Boston afternoon, three young boys play street hockey near their homes. After writing their names in freshly lain concrete sidewalk, a sinister ‘police detective’ (John Dolan, who I can never ever see as anyone but this character, he’s that affecting) hassles them and tries to lure the youngsters away. Two of them are wise to his game and escape. The third does not. This crime spurs a ripple effect into the future for these boys, as we see them grow up into very different and equally troubled men. Jimmy (Sean Penn has never been better) is a small time hustler with anger issues, Sean (Kevin Bacon) a cop with his own demons and Dave (Tim Robbins), the boy who was successfully kidnapped and held all those years ago, is a fractured shell of a human whose damaged soul lashes against the whites of his eyes and prevents him from functioning normally. Malcontent comes full circle to find them once again when Jimmy’s young daughter (lovely Emmy Rossum) is found murdered, setting in motion one of the great tragedies you’ll find in cinema this century or last. Eastwood lets his actors quietly emote until the floodgates open and we see raw despair roil forth from three men who are broken in different ways, and how it affects everyone in their lives. Penn is tuned into something higher here, and I’ll not soon forget him arriving at the scene of his daughter’s murder. Robbins let’s the horror of buried trauma deep through the family man facade until we see the deformed psyche left beneath, while Bacon reigns it in for a performance no less memorable than the others. Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney are excellent as Dave and Jimmy’s wives, while Laurence Fishburne provides the faintest ray of humour as Sean’s partner. This is as much a murder mystery as it is an intense interpersonal drama, but the whole story is ruled by emotion; that burning need for revenge from several angles, the hollow pit of loss left behind when someone dies, the psychological scar tissue that trails in the wake of abuse, everything slowly coming to light as the grim, doom laden narrative unfurls. Tom Stern’s camera probes inlets along the harbour, sprawling neighbourhoods and hidden barrooms, Brian Helgeland expertly adapts the novel from Dennis Lehane and Eastwood himself composes a beautiful lament of a score, while the actors turn in galvanizing work. One of the finest films of the last few decades and not one you’re ever likely to forget, once seen.
A remake of an old black and white Disney flick called The Absent Minded Professor that has long since gotten a bit stale, Flubber took all the best elements of that and breathed new 90’s life into the premise, most of the pep in its step coming from star Robin Williams. Keep in mind it was a critical bomb though, which just doesn’t make a shred of sense to me. It’s fun, lighthearted, hilarious and just a bit raunchy in places where it can pull it off. For whatever reason, it didn’t sit well with anyone other than fans like me who will furiously shove a copy in your face if we hear that you haven’t seen it. Williams is college professor Philip Brainard, who is so absent minded it borders on dementia. He leaves his lovely fiance (Marcia Gay Harden) at the alter TWICE, prompting the advances of irksome college dean Shooter Mcgavi- I mean Christopher Mcdonald. He’s on a quest, you see, an obsessive quest to find the formula for… something. That something turns up after a destructive whirlwind of disasters in his basement lab, and in the form of Flubber, a lovable ball of green goo, infected with incurable ADHD and an inexhaustible sense of humour. While the utter the life of the party, Flubber does have its practical uses, such as making cars fly and turning the hopeless varsity basketball team into a bunch of flying Tasmanian devils who nail every dunk. This all gets the attention of insidious local philanthropist and lowlife Chester Hoenicker (Raymond J. Barry) who greedily wants the discovery for his own. He sends his two goons Smith (Ted Levine) and Wesson (Clancy Brown) to rob Brainard of his precious sentient mucous, which turns into one of the most hilarious displays of slapstick comedy since the Three Stooges. Oh, did I mention Williams has a little flying UFO sidekick named Weebo, who has a perfect GIF reaction to everything, before GIF’s were even a thing? So much to love about this little classic. Williams is his usual buoyant self, with some of his trademark razor focus diminished in favor of doe eyed, vacuous forgetfulness that would make Jason Bourne guilty for ever whining about his predicament. Special effects are top drawer too, Flubber would look dapper in Blu Ray if they ever felt so inclined as to release one, not to mention aforementioned airborne automobiles and dear little Weebo. Can’t give enough glowing praise to this little treasure, and hiss enough venom towards those sourpuss critics who assaulted it. Flubber for the win.