Film Review: Wild

via Pacific Coast Trail Association

In the opening scene of the Jean-Marc Vallée directed Wild, Cheryl Strayed  (portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, Walk The LineLegally Blonde) is perched upon a rock, removing a darkened dead nail from her toe. The grotesque image is quickly replaced by the perpetrating hiking boot accidentally tumbling down the mountainside. Partially frustrated and partially amused, Cheryl takes the other boot and throws it out to join its partner, lost in the forest below.

Wild is just that; an exploration of the deep-seeded effects of tragedy and how one woman chooses extremities to cope and heal. Driven by the loss of her mother Barbara (Laura Dern, EnlightenedThe Fault In Our Stars) and subsequent loneliness, divorce from her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski, The Newsroom), depression and drug addiction, Strayed seeks clarity and personal redemption by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,500+ mile hiking path through several national parks and mountain ranges on the American west coast in 1994.

The entire tale is detailed in Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Based on the two chapters I’ve read thus far (and the plethora of approving comments from my far-more credible friend who is a Cheryl Strayed fan, Arina,  post-screening), screenwriter  Nick Hornby (author of About A Boy and screenplay writer behind An Education) appears to have successfully adapted Cheryl’s humorous, occasionally sarcastic but emotionally evocative depiction of her journey into the depths of grief and self-discovery without compromising her voice or story.

The visual and plot devices are fairly surface-level symbolic (see: the depleting size of her backpack over the course of two hours as she becomes the hiker she never was and the person she used to be), but they never underwhelm the notes of feminism, breathtaking landscapes, split storytelling and the beautiful performances that make Wild so deeply satisfying. By honing those elements of the narrative, Vallée, who is coming off of the success of last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, has once again constructed a stage that allows his leads to exemplify their very best efforts and deliver the emotional punch while also transforming Strayed’s story into a multi-dimensional, visual and emotional experience. Vallée’s and editors John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa’s combined efforts to layer dual storylines in order to communicate points on reinvention and self-discovery , preventing Wild from feeling too cliché or similar to other human vs. nature stories like Into the Wild and 127 Hours.

Dern and Witherspoon have a wonderful chemistry together. Their mother-daughter relationship drives the underlying emotional arch and source for Cheryl’s eventual descent, but it’s not that they’re just convincing; it’s also heartbreakingly reminiscent for any viewer who has experienced love in such an entrenched, spiritual and dependent manner.  When Barbara passes away and Cheryl finds herself completely alone in her grief, the audience immediately feels that absence, to the credit of Dern’s quiet strength in her on-screen presence.

Reese delivers a performance that is just so incredibly human and really is the heartbeat of this feature. Her vulnerability and physicality in this role, a character who faces extreme challenges in both ends of an individual spectrum, is honest and identifiable. It’s a career-high sandwiched between her other comeback efforts, one as an executive producer on Gone Girl and the other, a starring role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, out later this month, though I doubt audiences will find the same sense of serenity and peace that Reese conveys by the end of this film in those works.

I attended a screening of Wild at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Wild is out in theatres now. 

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Film Review: The Imitation Game

via Hitflix

The Imitation Game is easily the most-buzzed about film to come out of festival season, partially because it’s as Oscar-bait as you can get, but also because it is a wholly satisfying flick that is guaranteed to please audiences beyond those who are already members of the Cumbercollective.

That is, of course, the less derogatory name of Benedict Cumberbatch’s fan base, who I initially suspected had a large hand in driving The Imitation Game‘s People’s Choice Award win at the Toronto International Film Festival. But, upon screening the film twice at the festival, it became all-too clear that if anyone who isn’t a part of the Collective pre-viewing, they will certainly be convinced to join once the credits roll. If you’re not ready for such extremes, you’ll at least have the pleasure of seeing a film that is a smoothly woven tale of an under appreciated mind who changed the course of history.

Based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, The Imitation Game is about British mathematician Alan Turing (played by Cumberbatch, SherlockThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) who is enlisted by the British government to assist in breaking Germany’s coding system called Enigma during World War II. If broken, the British government will be able to interpret intercepted messages and prepare in advance of German attacks.  Dissatisfied with the team assembled by his military bosses, Turing recruits Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, The Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride and Prejudice), who not only plays a critical role in the government’s endeavors, but also in Turing’s life.

Almost immediately, Turing sees the pointlessness of the existing analytical system that the team is supposed to follow; the code combinations are endless and as the clock ticks away, the chances of solving them and thus winning the war become slimmer. Instead of assisting them, Turing sets out plans to build a machine that can decode the messages for them. In order to do so, he has to overcome the boundaries of his own social ineptness and introverted ways to forge bonds with his teammates and prove to his overseers, Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance, Game of Thrones) and Major General Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, Zero Dark Thirty, Low Winter Sun) that his ideas are entirely plausible and financially viable.

The Imitation Game is a biographical piece as much as it is a historical retelling (with some liberties, I’m sure.) Amidst the race to crack Enigma is a story about an individual who is widely misunderstood due to an earlier period of his life spent bullied and heartbroken, which shapes Turing’s challenging and isolating personality. Cumberbatch easily balances his character’s shortcomings with humanizing effects and demonstrates an unexpected amount of range for someone who is well-known for playing “genius” characters. While Cumberbatch’s Turing is just as blunt and obviously intelligent as the rest of his on-screen counterparts, the anxiousness and fear presented in his stuttering speech and defending movements evoke empathy and showcases an incredible amount of depth in this career-turning performance. When the audience learns of the injustices committed against Turing due to his sexuality,  it’s Cumberbatch’s vulnerability and physicality that drives the emotional impact of those scenes.

I took this photo of Benedict Cumberbatch walking away after being flooded by a small group of fans at TIFF 14.

I took this photo of Benedict Cumberbatch walking away after being flooded by a small group of fans at TIFF 14.

This is certainly Turing’s story, but the supporting cast does a fantastic job at setting up the humorous and dramatic moments where Cumberbatch ultimately takes the reigns. Although Charles Dance and Mark Strong respectively bring a commanding presence to their roles, Matthew Goode (Stoker, The Good Wife) and Keira Knightley deliver the crowd-pleasing performances that ground the film in any normalcy that can be found in this unique situation. Goode plays Hugh Alexander, a charming cryptanalyst on the Engima team that is in many ways the anti-thesis to Turing, save for their common objective to win the war.  Their relationship is coloured by their vast personality differences and attitudes towards their task, but when they finally bond as teammates and eventually become friends, Turing finally finds the social comfort that he longed for his entire life. Knightley’s take on Joan Clarke drives this as well. She is determined in her attempts to engage Turing, and Knightley comes across self-assured in her role. I’m not in the party of individuals who say that this is one of Knightley’s stand-out performances, but her portrayal as a strong, intelligent female character in a time when it is all about the boys is nothing short of satisfying, lovely and impressionable.

The technical front of The Imitation Game is handled exceptionally well. Director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) balances the plot and character development without ever undermining either element. His approach to the story is manifested  in three different timelines; Turing’s childhood, his work on Enigma and his arrest and punishment for engaging in a homosexual relationship. Save for the beginning, the transitions between each of these timelines are coherent and purposeful, creating a well-crafted guideline to the major points of Turing’s life. Simultaneously, the core plot  is akin to a political thriller instead of an action-driven take on war, but the role of intellectual strategy is intriguing enough to hold your interest and drive the pacing of this film. While much of the story takes place in Bletchley Park, which housed the secretive Enigma mission, Tyldum spliced such scenes with images of bombings and citizens seeking shelter which worked really well as a visual device to remind audiences what exactly is at stake. The sounds of Alexandre Desplat’s beautifully composed score is what transforms this entire film into the poetic tale that Tyldum ultimately delivers, adding another level layered film. In terms of the technical elements, it is probably my favourite one.

There is little to not like about The Imitation Game. Creatively, it is fine-tuned to the point where the acting, directing, editing and scripting are all well-balanced and accessible to audiences. More importantly is that Tyldum, Cumberbatch and the rest of the production team ensured that this film not only celebrates his contributions, but it also identifies his tragedies. The inclusion of both makes this film a fantastic, reflective piece.

The Imitation Game is out in American theatres now and will release in Toronto on December 12th, followed by a wide release in the rest of Canada on December 19th.