Penn’s knockout blow for radicals

Image of Nigel Andrews

The counterculture kids go head to head this week. Actors Robert Redford and Sean Penn have been the faces of rebellion – gracious and gonzo respectively – in consecutive epochs of Hollywood radicalism. First the blond heartthrob, then the serial hellraiser (Madonna spouse, media leftist, Katrina care crusader), took his independent-mindedness behind the camera to direct. Ordinary People,
The Indian Runner
, Quiz Show, The Crossing Guard were among the films tumbling into our laps in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s. Now, come the millennium, we have Lions for Lambs and Into the Wild.

Who wins this round? Penn, by a knockout. Does that tell us anything? Only that age is a telling factor even among ageing rivals. The younger man’s day has come, albeit at a sere 47, and the older should perhaps settle for an honoured retirement polishing his Oscars.

Into the Wild is a dream movie. It is about a dream – a far-out, true-life enactment of the American dream – and it is directed with a poetic confidence Penn may, years ahead, look back on as a dream. The mad, magnificent story of 22-year-old college graduate Chris McCandless, who dropped out of promise and prosperity to disappear into hobo heaven, wandering across the US, meeting remarkable recluses, and ending up dead from poisoned leaves in Alaska, could have been filmed by that lover of crazy hermits Werner Herzog. (He almost did film it in Grizzly Man.)

But Penn outshines Herzog here. Adapting Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, he doesn’t surrealise the already surreal. He just falls in love with the crackpot metaphysics of his hero’s act. He accepts the boy’s daft sobriquet (“Alexander Supertramp”), he blisses out to the landscapes – shot with a visionary panache beyond picture postcards, even beyond the designer mystical romanticism of Terrence Malick – and he gives an electric vitality to both the protagonist and his swell of chance friends. Emile Hirsch plays McCandless as tousle-headed, woolly- minded saint, scrawling a tale of transcendence that even he doesn’t quite understand. He is just an indefatigable pantheist, attracting the holy dregs of dropout America, who are, of course (though Penn doesn’t labour the point), frequently more admirable than the nation’s club members who currently rule it.

Catherine Keener (troubled hippy), Vince Vaughn (ageing roaring-boy with sly, rapier grins of self-knowledge) and Hal Holbrook (dustbowl St Jerome seeing in McCandless his younger self) all give their best performances in years. Penn doesn’t semaphore these show- stoppers, nor anything else. The characters, scenery and themes just arrive fully-dressed and organically grown. In the film’s free-range structure the “flashbacks” to the boy’s parents (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Hayden) and sister (Jena Malone, overvoicing the real sister’s diaries), are part of a continuous experiential present. You could say that Into the Wild belongs to the 1960s rather than to 2007. But why should 2007, in its needy state, pass up a treat? And the 1960s, of course, are timeless.

Lions for Lambs, by contrast, prompts the oldest philosophical question of all: “Is there life before death?” Nothing could be bolder in Hollywood, you would think, than to confront the daily dying that is happening at present in and out of the US. Deaths on the Middle East battlefronts. Deaths of the heart and of hope in a nation watching its young turned to cinders. Deaths of the mind in a government where the neo-con braincells are closing ranks for a Custer-like last stand.

But the crisis needed a worthy response, not this lame exercise in proscenium dialectics. Tom Cruise, playing a rightwing senator expounding, in a tête-à-tête with liberal reporter Meryl Streep, his Big Idea to win the war in Afghanistan, seems to be in a stage play. Stuck on a single if sizeable office floorspace, his hair and grin polished like billiard balls, Cruise struts, jabbers and soliloquises while Streep interposes the occasional “Yes, but”. Elsewhere, Robert Redford, as a university professor pumping intellectual and political evangelism into a flaky but promising student (Andrew Garfield), could be a stick of animated furniture in his earth- coloured office full of dawn-of- radicalism framed photographs.

Then there is the third image-flow in this triptych of stories set on the same imaginary day. Two of Redford’s idealistic non-white students (Derek Luke, Michael Peña), seen in flashback giving themselves their own marching orders, are now in Afghanistan as bullet fodder in the Cruise-inspired big push. Their ordeal, pinned down on a snow- swirling peak by the Taliban, would be the big-sell sequence in an action movie. Here, more didactically yet also, in its tokenistic characterisation, more insultingly, it is used to illustrate the harvest reaped by conflicting idealisms.

Elsewhere, talk filmed as talk is not enough and never was on screen. Was there a Sundance Institute-style workshop in which Professor Redford told his cast, “Let’s get the words right first. We’ll figure out the feelings, characterisation and camera movements later”? They never do. The stilted result prompts the thought: If this is all that is left of questioning energy in American popular culture, at a crunch point in national action and conscience, then the west may truly be doomed. Or perhaps, as in Into the Wild, it should just go back to the 1960s for a refresher course.

Best of the rest is Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit. This sweet human comedy from Israel gives us an Egyptian police band lost in an Israeli small town en route to a concert engagement. Night closes in; they bed and board with the locals. Political enemies call a truce to swap tales of humanity while darkness covers their crime. Imagine early Milos Forman crossed with the forlorn wit of Otar Ioseliani. (And the cop combo’s powder-blue uniforms should start a fashion rage.)

Bug is a late gothic flourish from William The Exorcist Friedkin. Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, both outstanding, act the nails out of the floorboards in a tale of designer insects, government conspiracy and rattling scenery, based on a play by Tracey Letts. The camera barely leaves the mid-desert motel room, but its pyrotechnics – the camera’s, that is (but also the room’s) – ensure we never feel cheated of movie-style kinetics.

Planet Terror, dire and dunderheaded, is about how life on earth would be if we were ruled by Robert Rodriguez with help from Quentin Tarantino. Plucked like QT’s Death Proof from the ill-fated Grindhouse, this expanded mini-feature is about leggy girls fighting the undead. A few moments of make-up bravura and digital Dadaism, including Bruce Willis’s pulsating cheek boils, soon give way to non-stop bullet fare and zombie action. “You shoot them, just like in video games,” a mother says to her son. He does, and they do.

If you prefer your gore Belgian and Flemish-speaking, there is Koen Mortier’s Ex Drummer. Bleakly funny for an hour, like a conflation of Man Bites Dog and This is Spinal Tap, the tale of a handicapped, homicidal rock band called The Feminists finally peters out in mass murder and visual gross-out.

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