Monday, December 8, 2014

Wild, Comet, Still Alice, Elsa & Fred, Voice of the King


Still Alice

Elsa & Fred
Voice of the King

Reese Witherspoon gives an appealingly relatable and unfussy performance - one worthy of an Oscar nom - as Cheryl Strayed in Jean-Marc Vallée's "Wild," which overcomes an occasionally on-the-nose script by Nick Hornby to provide a moving and highly sensory experience.

Vallée, who directed Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscars in last year's "Dallas Buyers Club," again shows his ability to capture the unspoken poignancy of individual moments and gives this sometimes hard-to-watch re-creation of Strayed's thousand-mile hike up the Pacific Coast Trail (which includes an encounter with a rattlesnake and the excruciating pulling-off of a hanging toenail) an almost romantic quality without either understating or overstating the peril in which she put herself as an attractive young woman alone without a gun in the out-of-doors. It took me a while to warm to his approach to the saga - a fractured and fragmentary mental memory quilt of images and moments from Strayed's flawed life as a cheating lover and heroin addict, and her youth with a mother (Laura Dern) dead at 45 of cancer. 

Ultimately, I was deeply impressed; Vallée's depiction of the way external stimuli trigger recollections in Cheryl is a representation of memory not quite like any other I've seen on film. And his use of a leitmotif involving a fox that first approaches Cheryl's tent in the snow and that she sees (or thinks she sees) several more times is really rather beautiful. "Wild" is a richer and more feeling experience than a similar but colder film called "Tracks" from earlier this year; it has more in common with Sean Penn's great "Into the Wild" (2007). Like that picture, which starred Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, "Wild" benefits from humor and humanity and career-best work by its lead.

I hated almost every minute of the Justin Long-Emmy Rossum romance "Comet," an exasperatingly talky exercise in self-indulgence by writer-director Sam Esmail, who gives Long (a small-screen presence at best) pages and pages of dialogue, relegating the more talented Rossum to a fundamentally reactive part. Esmail careens among half a dozen moments from the couple's relationship, with the result that we're never invested at any point. This one should have gone straight to cable.

A predictably perfect performance by Julianne Moore is the only thing that elevates Richard Glatzer's and Wash Westmoreland's Alzheimer's drama "Still Alice" above disease-of-the-week status. (Full disclosure: Glatzer is a friendly acquaintance through bridge. He and Westmoreland also made this year's Errol Flynn biopic "The Last of Robin Hood.") Moore, perhaps the most indispensable actress of her generation, makes her Alice Howland, a professor of linguistics at Columbia, different from other movie characters afflicted with Alzheimer's by virtue of the un-self-pitying matter-of-factness with which she confronts her steep decline. I didn't particularly buy Alec Baldwin as her equally brilliant doctor husband, and material involving Moore's friend Kristen Stewart as Alice's independent actress daughter I've seen many times before, but it's Moore's movie, and she alone makes it worthwhile.

There's a distinctly TV feel to Michael Radford's "Elsa & Fred," in limited theatrical release and on Video on Demand. Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer star as neighbors in a New Orleans apartment building who find each other late in life and take one last chance at big love. The supporting cast is drawn mostly from the small screen (Erika Alexander, Scott Bakula, Chris Noth), with Marcia Gay Harden in a thankless role as Plummer's disapproving and money-grubbing daughter. Playing the cantankerous old coot doesn't strike me as the best use of Plummer's talents, but MacLaine makes the movie with Elsa's web of lies and fibs, each offered instantaneously, without thought or remorse. It's a funny running theme. And the last scene - a realization of Elsa's lifelong wish to re-create Anita Ekberg's and Marcello Mastroianni's Trevi Fountain scene from "La Dolce Vita" - doesn't feel cheap at all. Here's a small charmer among the month's prestige pictures.

Finally, the biodoc "Voice of the King," about legendary Los Angeles Kings broadcaster Bob Miller. Few of the stories related in director Charlie Minn's interviews with players and broadcasters past and present will be new to longtime fans (I hadn't heard Gretzky admit begging off the ice for the last shift of Game 7 at Toronto in the '93 WCF), but many of them are worth retelling. Miller's such an affable guy, there's no way not to like him and appreciate his body of work, and the Kings' unbelievable recent success still can bring a tear to my eye . The camera work and film stock, though, are mostly of YouTube quality, and Minn didn't have to include himself in so many shots (and identify himself each time).

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