Into the Wild

dir. Sean Penn

To recapitulate: In 1990, a young man named Christopher McCandless graduated from Emory University, gave his life savings to Oxfam, burned his cash, cut ties with everyone he knew, changed his name to Alexander Supertramp, and wandered the country, living a fantasy of Emersonian heroism.

Two years later, he walked into Alaska's Denali National Park with a gun, a 10-pound sack of rice, and not much else; 112 days later, he died of starvation. Four years later, an adventure writer named Jon Krakauer wrote a book about McCandless and got famous. Eleven years later, Sean Penn adapted and directed this movie about McCandless. It's a simplistic, dewy-eyed paean to a conflicted young man whom Penn would rather canonize than investigate.

Krakauer also has a crush on McCandless—how could an adventure writer not?—but he at least wonders whether "Alexander Supertramp" was a little melodramatic, maybe even a little ridiculous. He raises the question early, in the fifth paragraph of his book, when an Alaskan named Jim Gallien picks up the hitchhiking Supertramp: "Gallien wondered whether he'd picked up one of those crackpots from the lower forty-eight who come north to live out ill-considered Jack London fantasies."

He had.

McCandless is in good crackpotted company: There's Timothy Treadwell, in Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, who got eaten by a bear. There's Donald Crowhurst, in the recent documentary Deep Water, who went mad while trying to sail around the world. There's the writer Isabelle Eberhardt, a Victorian Englishwoman who wandered around North Africa and died in a flash flood in the desert.

They're all rich, knotty characters—megalomaniacs who loathe themselves and their origins, who have an almost erotic desire to make their bodies do things that bodies aren't supposed to be doing. They change their names, accents, and biographies. They keep diaries where they bloviate about nature and the universe and transcendence. Then they die, leaving filmmakers and biographers to wonder whether they were heroic adventurers or grandiose jackasses.

Unless you're Sean Penn. If you're Sean Penn, it's all heroics, all the time: epic hikes and boat trips, hunting, foraging, riding the rails, disdain for cities and convenience and convention. Penn omits the details that might complicate his portrait of Saint Christopher, like the forest service cabin in Denali National Park, just six miles from the camp where McCandless starved, that was stocked with emergency food (and, mysteriously, vandalized during the 112-day sojourn). Penn also indulges in embellishments: McCandless can't just burn his money, he must also toss in his driver's license and Social Security card; McCandless can't just get hauled off a train by a railroad bull (as his letters report), he must also be beaten.

It makes sense that Penn would be more interested in a movie about a martyr than a person. Penn plays the part of conspicuous freethinker and adventurer, with well-publicized visits to Iran, bro-downs with Hugo Chávez, and open letters to George W. Bush. You get the sense that the director considers his subject a brother in spirit. (One wonders what McCandless would've thought about that.)

Thus, the movie suffers. By overplaying the Emersonian heroism, Penn flattens the most interesting part of the story, leaving nothing but a pretty picture (shot on location) with an Eddie Vedder soundtrack and an insufferably pious protagonist. By the time he gets to Alaska, we're hoping he'll hurry up and die his famous death so the rest of us can get on with living. BRENDAN KILEY

The Kingdom

dir. Peter Berg

Movies designed to be "of the moment" face a significant hurdle: Go breezy on the intricacies of the material and risk eggheaded wrath; get cerebral and watch the general audiences scatter. Much like the similarly themed In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom is a Big, Important movie that feels much more successful when it downshifts into a simple genre picture—in this case, a rock 'em, sock 'em action flick. Given the relevance of its subject matter, this is a bit of a problem.

Matthew Michael Carnahan's script follows a vengeance-minded FBI forensics team (consisting of Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and the dependably awesome Jason Bateman) investigating a suicide bombing at an American compound in Saudi Arabia with the aid of a sympathetic local cop (Paradise Now's marvelous Ashraf Barhom, doing what he can with his character's flash-card characterization). Director Peter Berg apes the playbook of his producer Michael Mann to a T (characters existentially defined by their jobs, check; over-the-shoulder subjective shots, check), but with precious little of the single-minded fluidity that makes Mann, well, Mann. As a result, the narrative's combination of deep character moments and well-researched info dumps clunks along more awkwardly than it should. (On a side note, anyone who was nauseated by The Bourne Ultimatum's constant shaky-cam would be well advised to hit the Dramamine beforehand.)

Cinematically speaking, Berg seems on much surer ground with the final act, a bravura extended action sequence that plays out like a genuinely angry revenge fantasy. As cathartic as it is in the moment, though, the sudden depiction of the enemy as faceless killing machines raises some weird questions about the ultimate intent of the movie. Is it a provocative, ripped-from-the-headlines think piece, or a jingoistic, squib-happy ass kicker? Pick a card, folks. ANDREW WRIGHT

Trade

dir. Marco Kreuzpaintner

It's tough to make a movie about sex trafficking without looking like either a sleaze or a sap. The plot supplies itself: A young woman is abducted from or sold by her guardians, she is raped and beaten and endures inhuman living conditions, she escapes or is rescued, and she emerges heroic, subtly but permanently scathed. But how to portray this girl, who, by definition, must be desirable? The righteous message would be ruined if viewers began to overidentify with her captors.

The lazy way to avoid exploitation is to make the girl attractive—in a virginal or maternal sort of way—but swaddle her in so much thick sentimental insulation that her body becomes irrelevant. In Trade, the first dump of sentiment comes in the form of a red rose (A RED FUCKING ROSE!) given to the victim upon her arrival in Mexico City and then crushed underfoot (CRUSHED UNDERFOOT!) as she's shoved into a waiting van (A WAITING VAN!). The main characters in Trade are an angelic blond mother from Poland (Alicja Bachleda-Curus) and an 11-year-old slum dweller (Paulina Gaitan) whose most secret desires are directed toward a pink bike festooned with streamers.

The talented young German director Marco Kreuzpaintner is gay (his last film, the 2006 SIFF entry Summer Storm, is one of those obligatory nostalgic autobiographies about sexual awakening and a rowing team), and I have this horrible feeling that sexuality played a critical role in his being asked to direct this movie, his Hollywood debut. Who better to ignore female sexuality than a gay man? But Kreuzpaintner does more than ignore female sexuality. He strangles it with imagery better suited to one of those icky, squicky father-daughter "purity balls" that evangelical Christians like to throw. Trade tries to avoid the stench of sexual exploitation, but lands in a mess of sentimentality—red roses, pink bikes—which is far more revolting. ANNIE WAGNER

King of California

dir. Mike Cahill

Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) is an independent 16-year-old in Southern California with a neat old house, a job at McDonald's, an absent mother, a dad in the loony bin, and a beat-up Volvo. She takes care of herself in her neat old house—yellow paint, a wraparound porch, dark wood floors—while tract housing metastasizes around her. Life's quiet. Things aren't bad.

Then her dad, Charlie (played by Michael Douglas and his bristling beard), gets out of the loony bin and drags her into a search, through the California suburbs, for a chest of gold buried by a Spanish monk in the 17th century. She's skeptical but plays along, partly to appease Charlie and partly to keep an eye on him. A doubloon and a few pottery shards later, they're both convinced, rampaging around the contemporary landscape—golf courses, parking lots, construction sites—with their minds lodged in antiquity.

Troublingly, the movie romanticizes Charlie's manic depression as something cute, fun, and mildly inconvenient. Kind of like a kitten—it wakes you up in the middle of the night and occasionally destroys your favorite things, but adds invaluable richness to your boring, sane life. It's a stupid proposition, but a perennial one. (Remember Benny & Joon?)

It endures because it works: Charlie and Miranda are a charming pair and there is real pleasure in watching them—with their maps, surveying equipment, and centuries-old diary—scheme past the dullards of the modern world to find their treasure. By the time they're working out how to tear up a Costco floor with a jackhammer and dive into an underground river without anybody noticing, the seduction is complete. BRENDAN KILEY

The Jane Austen Book Club

dir. Robin Swicord

The other day I listened to director Robin Swicord (whose screenwriting credits include such abominations as Memoirs of a Geisha) complain on NPR that her film would be dismissed as a "chick flick." Okay. This movie is about a varied group of women plus one emotionally oblivious rich guy... or more accurately, a varied group of women plus one emotionally oblivious rich guy who form a book club... even more specifically, a varied group of women plus one emotionally oblivious rich guy who form a book club exclusively devoted to the works of Jane Austen. Chick flick? I have to vote yea.

The readers are, to a woman, incapable of thinking about anything that is not plot, so their conversations will grate on anyone who knows the novels. I had to pretend the club was meeting about ponies (fitzwilliams are so handsome and headstrong!) or landscape gardening (mariannes are such delicate flowers!) to make it through their feeble analysis. But the characters are slightly more than the sum of their ideas about Austen, and I was dragged, only half-unwillingly, into their psychological minidramas about sudden divorce and impetuous lesbianism and criminally negligent mothers. (None of these themes, you will note, are much addressed in the works of Austen.)

I blame the actors, who are way too talented to be wasting their time on this sort of pseudointellectual nonsense. Emily Blunt (My Summer of Love), in particular, should never have consented to play a frail shell of a teacher named Prudie—who, I swear to god, was modeled after Miranda July, by the costume designer if not the dialogue coach. Somehow, overcoming a terrible wig and countless flouncy blouses, Blunt figures out a way to make self-defensive pretension seem almost appealing. It's a perverse brand of talent, but she's got it. ANNIE WAGNER

Feast of Love

dir. Robert Benton

Someone somewhere once said something like this: The grandest subject of all, love, can only be tackled by directors who are beyond the age of 55. At that point in life, the director has the experience and distance to make sense of an emotion that is powerful and unpredictable. If there is any truth to this way of thinking, the movie Feast of Love contradicts it. The director of the film, Robert Benton, is well past 70, and yet what he has to say about the grandest subject of all could easily be said by a man whose life has been around the sun 20 times.

Feast of Love, which is set in Portland, Oregon, but based on a novel that is set in Ann Arbor, connects love with the cosmic, love with the magical, love with madness, love with birth, and love with death. But like the phone lines in Zimbabwe, none of these connections work. Why? Because after the director makes a connection—love and death, for example—he does not check to see if it is meaningful, if it functions, if it is incomplete. And he doesn't check because his direction is not guided by a philosophy (or art) that can make more of a connection than what it already is—a connection.

The worst thing about Feast of Love, however, is that the sex scenes are not sexy. The lovers in the film lack fire, heat, passion. The lovers fuck (make a connection), moan a little bit, and then the scene is over. But we (the audience) want the camera to explore the bodies, film his flesh, adore her lips, follow those hips. This is sex, this is love in action, this is the source for oceans of happiness or mountains of misery. The director should have gone all the way. CHARLES MUDEDE

December Boys

dir. Rod Hardy

December Boys begins with an artfully upsetting bang: a slow pan along a row of young men, ranging from roughly 6 to 16 years old, lined up according to height. Each boy sports a drab, tidy haircut and flashes a full smile. These smiles make some boys look like politicians, others like pageant contestants, and the best—the warmest and most natural—like sons. From this row of sample orphans, a single winner is selected and whisked off to a presumed family paradise. The rest return to the orphanage in the Australian outback, to lives of waiting and making do and praying for a better outcome at the next audition.

The ferocious desire for family burning in the heart of every orphan is the preeminent theme of December Boys, which was adapted from Michael Noonan's book of the same name, and whose title refers to the orphanage's once-monthly birthday celebrations. In the early 1960s, the orphanage's quartet of "December boys" is sent on a seaside holiday (this is Australia, so December means summer), courtesy of a kindly old couple who welcome the orphans into their home. When talk of a possible adoption is overheard by one of the boys—our narrator, Misty, a four-eyed "gifted child" played with quiet charm by Lee Cormie—the seaside holiday becomes a fight for family, as the boys jostle for prominence in the eyes of their prospective adoptive parents.

From this perch of interest, December Boys settles clunkily into an episodic coming-of-age drama, shoved roughly along by director Rod Hardy, who showcases his gorgeous locale with admirable thoroughness before marching his film to a brusque and mawkish close. Along the way we get a standard-issue "fast girl" who teaches Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe a sexy lesson in heartbreak and at least three instances of characters hollering the film's title triumphantly. DAVID SCHMADER

Hannah Takes the Stairs

dir. Joe Swanberg

Hannah Takes the Stairs is being billed as the poster child for the so-called "mumblecore" movement. A series of minimalist, lo-fi gems about awkward twentysomethings by awkward twentysomething moviemakers starring their awkward twentysomething friends—including the excellent Quiet City, Mutual Appreciation, and Funny Ha Ha—the mumblecore label brought some justified attention to a batch of intertwined films and filmmakers in the last couple of years. But like a goofy, 1950s rock-and-roll record must have sounded to a Muddy Waters fan, Hannah Takes the Stairs seems like an empty parody of the form.

It has the ingredients right: Aimless but earnest characters hang out in their apartments and at their jobs waiting for something to happen, as painfully halted conversations and flirtations fill the time. And at times, Hannah does what this genre does best: catching those loaded moments that punctuate seemingly casual chatter. The choreography that moves Hannah from a seat on the couch next to her roommate over to a seat next to her latest crush, for example, is one of those poignant moments that these minimalist films nail.

But director Joe Swanberg spoils things by trying too hard. And it doesn't help that the main actor, the sexy and often naked Hannah (Greta Gerwig), plays at being awkward rather than actually being awkward. The best of these films don't try; this one makes a point of it. JOSH FEIT