I thought about starting this blog with a review of Undertow (2004; written/directed by David Gordon Green), which I watched today, but I didn't want to start my blog with a movie that nobody had ever heard of...
Into the Wild (ITW) is based on the life Chris McCandless, a young man who hobo-ed around the US and then went to Alaska... and then he found five dollars. ITW is Sean Penn's fourth attempt to direct a major film. His last attempt was The Pledge (2001; starring Jack Nicholson) and it was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. If given the choice of watching The Pledge again or getting a bowlcut haircut... wait, that's not even a fair choice!
Although Penn has directed before, the amount of effects he uses in ITW makes you believe that he has never directed before (and watching The Pledge makes you believe that he doesn't know how to read scripts). All the effects seem to be random: one scene has slow motion, the next has blurry images, the one after that is in fast forward, then the next one has words appear on the screen, then there are brief, less-than-one-second flashbacks. Wes Anderson may overuse the slowmo effect (according to some), but he's found something that works and he has stuck with it. Penn and his schizophrenic use of effects reminds me of somebody that has just discovered how to use PowerPoint: each new slide has the words flying in or circling in or magically appearing or being "typed" by a typewriter. Memo to Penn: less is more.
The acting in ITW is fine. The lead is played by Emile Hirsch, one of the stars of Alpha Dog, the epic of our time (Brandon rented it one time and made me watch it with him ... we turned it off after 23 minutes). I'll say this about Hirsch: he can't grow a beard! It remains evident throughout the film that although the main character is in the wild, he has a short and perfectly manicured beard at almost all times. In the scenes in which Hirsch's beard was supposed to be haggard, it looked like somebody had shaved James Gandolfini's back and glued it to Hirsch's face. To a beard aficionado such as myself, it was disappointing and distracting. Shouldn't the call for actors have insisted that the actor who is going to portray man who lived out of a backpack for two years be able to grow a believable beard? Penn: you should've spent less money on those effects and more on a make-up artist.
ITW was nominated for two Oscars. Hal Holbrook (who?) was nominated for Best Supporting Actor with his role as a nice old man. He did a fine job acting, but he was only on screen for about 10 minutes in a movie that was 148 minutes long. Should you even be nominated if you are only in about 5% of the movie? I think this nomination was the Academy's way of saying, "Sean, remember that one time when you went to Iraq? That was totally awesome!" The other nomination was Jay Cassidy for Best Achievement in Editing. I tell you what, I think he deserved the nomination given the crazy variance in angles and the scratch-your-retina-with-a-fork amount of effects Penn employed.
Blurb: The scenery is beautiful and the story is sometimes inspiring, but the movie is 20 minutes longer than it needs to be and Penn's direction leads me to believe that he should be clinically diagnosed with ADHD. I'll say this about Sean Penn: he's a good actor.