“My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Wild (2014)

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Wild is an interesting film, and, on the whole, I liked it quite a bit. It’s great to see Reese Witherspoon digging in and acting again. I had begun to find latter-day Witherspoon (post-Walk the Line) a bit self-satisfied and, well, smug, and this based-on-a-true-story-as-turned-into-a-New-York-Times-bestseller role allows her to strip off the starry veneer and (mostly) give us some of the nuanced acting that her early career promised.

Where the film falters (at least for cynical me) is in what I would like to dub the Julie & Julia conundrum: a biographical film based on a regular ol’ person’s memoir, a tome that hangs on an oh-my-God-will-you-believe-THIS gimmick that makes great fodder for teary Oprah interviews or saucy segments on The View. In the case of, say, Julie & Julia, Amy Adams’ failed writer seems to declare, “Aw, what the heck! I’m just going to cook a different, fabulous Julia Child recipe every day and blog about it. I have no intention of becoming famous for it and leveraging it as a marketing hook to jump-start a literary career doused in flop sweat. Nope. Not me. I’m authentic.”

In the case of Wild, our protagonist Cheryl Strayed (interesting last name, given the subject matter) implodes after the sudden death of her beloved mother, throwing her marriage and her family and her English major lit aspirations (she’s a feminist because she references Erica Jong? that made me wince) in a garbage can, pouring kerosene on it, and lighting the whole kit and kaboodle on fire as she discovers the joys of sex addiction, heroin addiction, and just plain addiction. What saves her sullen, sputtering butt? Well, she just happens to see a guidebook to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (mind you, this is while sauntering into a drugstore for a pregnancy test ’cause she thinks she’s with child but not sure whose) and then determines that heading on a thousand mile vision quest will heal her soul. Oh, and if you didn’t know how rotten she was at this point, you later learn that she and her brother shoot her mother’s prized horse after mama’s death because they didn’t have the resources to care for it?!?! Um, how about offering it for adoption/rescue? Just a thought.

That preceding paragraph came across sh*ttier than I intended, but I’m leaving it there for all to ponder at will. It’s not this film’s problem, but our reality television/prurient tall tale tell-all culture has me wondering sometimes as to the veracity of stories like this one and the relative ease with which they translate from journal to blog to novel to Academy Award-glittering event film.

Regardless, Jean Marc-Vallee leaves behind any of his TV movie tendencies (see any of Jennifer Garner’s scenes in Dallas Buyers Club) and transforms the source material into cinematic poetry. The film is akin to a “memory play” where the central characters/audience float surreally in and out of present and past, and Vallee has a genius command of music and sound and imagery to evoke the kind of sense memory that snaps one back to happy and not-so-happy moments in time. Vallee and his game cast, which also includes a heart-breakingly luminous Laura Dern as Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s mother, allow for some marvelous bits of situational humor to shine through all the pathos – that is a real gift and essential for a movie like this, which could easily become a dark, cliched slog.

In the end, though, the movie lives or dies on Witherspoon’s epically back-packed shoulders, and her performance is a triumph. As she showed us so many years ago with her brilliant channeling of the What Makes Sammy Run? farce that is American politics (be it national, local, or … student council) in Election, Witherspoon with her jutting jaw, limpid eyes, and tortured/tortuous inner life excels when playing the unlikable. Pick Flick! Her Cheryl Strayed is raw-boned and relatable, someone whose misery has toxified her soul, not to mention anyone else’s within a five-mile radius of her.

Yet, Witherspoon never comes off maudlin, self-pitying, scenery-chewing. Her emotional collapse is chiefly internal (save some awkward heroin-den flashbacks that likely should have been left on the cutting room floor), and her trek along the rugged trail is believable and … kind of inept in its execution. Strayed makes lots of mistakes – think Cast Away in the woods which makes it all the more heroic in the end.

And, as for that horse situation (’cause you totally know THAT is what bothered me endlessly)? Strayed/Witherspoon is haunted by it (think Equus without all the weird Freudian freaky BS), and, as she journeys through California, animal life is a constant. A beautiful fox that very well may be the avatar of her late mother (the CGI was a bit clunky on that otherwise neat concept), an alpaca that she comes across in the wood (yeah, you read that correctly, but it leads to one of the film’s sweetest moments when she finds the grandma/grandson pair who care for the creature), little tree frogs that visit her in the night, and a whimsical encounter with a caterpillar. I’m sure I’m reading what I want to here, but Strayed’s/Witherspoon’s last words in the film are: “My life – like all lives – is mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” Damn right.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: Nebraska

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Almost there folks! Just 4 days remain until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton!

Please note that, in addition to online ordering, the book currently is being carried by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Memory Lane also has copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.

Here’s what Roy thinks about Nebraska: “Payne absolutely nails the small-town American vibe of suspicious desperation, envious gossip, and corrosive pride, and he does it without once condescending to his subject matter or judging the characters in play.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

“He believes everything that people tell him…” Nebraska

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I daresay Alexander Payne’s Nebraska may be my favorite film of 2013, and it is in my top 100 of all time. Payne (Election, Sideways, About Schmidt) presents as believable a treatise on family in middle America as I’ve ever seen, but, in his nuanced approach, he never loses the cinematic essence of his narrative.

The film stars Oscar nominee Bruce Dern as a Montana curmudgeon who gets one of those “you’ve won a million dollars if you just buy some magazines” come-ons in the mail. In his deep desire for something special to happen in his life, he believes it. The film opens as Woody Grant (Dern) makes yet another breakout from the home he shares with his exasperated wife (Dern’s brilliant fellow nominee June Squibb) and attempts to walk the 900 or so miles between Billings, Montana and Lincoln, Nebraska – where the letter-generating marketing company is headquartered – to claim his prize.

Enter Dern’s youngest son David, played by a refreshing Will Forte (Saturday Night Live, MacGruber), who beautifully balances frustration and familial love when he agrees to take his dad on the obviously fruitless quest to Lincoln. The dynamic between Dern and Forte is magic with both performers (assisted by director Payne) bringing out the best in each other, depicting a convincing parent/child dynamic with all the warmth, wit, frustration, and heart that entails.

(As an aside, I just heard, for the first time, Harry Chapin’s heartbreaking song “Mr. Tanner” courtesy of darling Laura Benanti’s equally delightful At 54 Below live album. I kept thinking about this song while watching the movie – similar joke, slightly different punchline, but equally affecting. Watch Benanti’s performance here.)

The road trip has its complications, generated in part by Woody’s alcoholism and possible dementia. Woody and David end up making a memorable stop in the father’s hometown of Hawthorne after Woody takes a fall and bangs up his noggin. Despite his son’s advice to the contrary, Woody tells a group of former drinking buddies about his newfound “winnings,” and that spark sets off a slow-burning comic powder keg of jealousy, greed, pride, resentment, and miscommunication among Woody’s family and friends.

Payne absolutely nails the small-town American vibe of suspicious desperation, envious gossip, and corrosive pride, and he does it without once condescending to his subject matter or judging the characters in play. The cast is perfection, from the aforementioned Dern, Forte, and Squibb to Bob Odenkirk as oldest son Ross and Stacy Keach as country-fried thug/bully Ed Pegram. I think any of us who grew up in small towns know that last guy – Keach perfectly personifies the overbearing charmer who has his greasy thumb on every citizen’s every move.

If Dern and Squibb, Payne and the movie don’t walk off with armloads of Oscars, I will be heartbroken. And Forte was robbed by not being nominated – he is the glue holding the film together.

Payne has populated the rest of the town and Woody’s extended family with a spectacular assortment of unknown performers (at least unknown to this viewer). Every one of them seems like they just walked out of the general store in AnyTown, USA and onto this movie set. The brothers, cousins, sisters-in-law in the film especially have it down: that stultifyingly overcast atmosphere created by family members who haven’t seen each other in years, with their probing questions, insulting assumptions, and tedious conversations about cars and mileage while watching Sunday afternoon football on TV. (Particularly observe Forte whose expressions in those scenes are priceless, fully leveraging his improv comedy training without breaking character once.)

Payne is not making fun of this place or its inhabitants, but he is putting this microcosm on display, warts and all, in a near-allegorical illustration of how life catches up with everyone, how we all get older, and how disappointment is a toxin that saps the soul. And somehow he gets that all done with a light touch, warm-hearted humor, and one darn poignant moment after another. When Forte and Dern arrive at the marketing joint in Lincoln, Forte tells the bemused woman who works there, “He [Woody] believes everything that people tell him.” She replies, “Oh, that’s too bad.”

And if you aren’t chuckling knowingly at Forte’s karaoke dinner with his loving/combative/crazy/adorable parents or weeping some sweet, salty tears at the film’s final moments, then you are made of granite!

Go see this movie. Now.