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Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014 2:31 p.m.

What We’re Watching: ‘Wild’

“Wild”

★★★✰✰

Reese Witherspoon as Strayed in "Wild." Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in “Wild.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

A careful adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, “Wild” tells the true story of the author’s inner struggle as she walks out of a troubled past – on a solo trip of 1,100 miles.

Reese Witherspoon takes on the part of Strayed, whose life has unraveled into uninhibited promiscuity and a mirage of heroin after losing her mother to cancer. With nothing else to live for – no home, partner or job – Strayed decides it’s time to live one of her dreams and plans a backpacking trip north on the Pacific Crest Trail.

From the start, Strayed’s struggle on the long journey is clear. Without any means of communicating with the outside world, Strayed must solve her many challenges – from crossing paths with a rattlesnake to bypassing the worst Sierra Nevada snow of the decade – alone.

The intensity and peril of the journey is portrayed in riveting and sometimes difficult to watch scenes, like when Strayed pulls off one of her too-small boots during a rest on a mountain peak, revealing a bloody and bruised foot and a dangling toenail. With viewers cringing, Strayed grabs the nail and pulls quickly.

As she stumbles backward from the force, a boot slides off the cliff, and Strayed grabs the other boot and chucks it off the mountain, yelling, “Fuck yeah, bitch,” with such anger that a burden of pain and troubles is released through the sound.

Strayed’s closest friend, Amy (Gaby Hoffmann), agrees to send food and care packages to each stop on her trip, reminding her, “You know you can quit at any time,” but Strayed is resilient, and her determination to finish the impractical journey makes her character fascinating.

Witherspoon as the rugged, strong-willed yet regretful and lost Strayed is a refreshing change from her usual rom-com roles, and her narration throughout the film creates an enduring connection with the audience.

Without the need for anything more than clear and minimalist shots of the beautiful West Coast forests, the camera follows Strayed as she walks past the natural blue lakes, mossy rainforests and windy deserts, and the imagery itself is a work of art.

Strayed’s haunting past is depicted through blurs of dark flashbacks, but these scenes of damp apartments with a drugged Strayed lying on the ground are largely unexplained, making the film feel somewhat stagnant.

Because of the lack of insight into Strayed’s inner thoughts or earlier life, the film’s conclusion seems rushed and cut off. Although Witherspoon narrates an epilogue to her story, the actions of her character during the film don’t reflect her apparent outcome, and the viewer is left thinking how she overcame the troubles haunting her.

The viewer knows Strayed has gone through a change in her behavior and outlook, but isn’t quite sure why or how.

Author Cheryl Strayed’s powerful story allows director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby to craft a unique film that stands out from other recent releases, if it be by plot alone. But though the first half of the film connects viewers to Strayed’s life and confides in them her past struggles, it is missing the resolution that makes her 1,100 mile hike worth it.

Released: Dec. 5
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”)
Writer: Nick Hornby (“An Education”)
Genre: Drama
Cast: Reese Witherspoon (“The Good Lie”), Laura Dern (“The Fault in Our Stars”), Gaby Hoffmann (“Veronica Mars”), Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman

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Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014 11:46 a.m.

What We’re Watching: ‘Whiplash’

This post was written by Hatchet staff writer Everly Jazi.

“Whiplash”

★★★★★

In a scene from “Whiplash,” blood spurts out of aspiring drummer Andrew Neyman’s sore hands as he grips his beloved drumsticks, playing the same measure he has practiced for weeks.

Aside from the drum kit and mattress Andrew pulls inside, the room is a bare prison where he works to become the best jazz drummer in history.

Promotional poster for "Whiplash."

Promotional poster for “Whiplash.”

“Whiplash,” which has already received two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, follows the first-year jazz student Andrew (Miles Teller) as he endures massive pains, like those displayed by this scene, while attempting to join a studio band at the fictional Shaffer Music Conservatory.

As Andrew spends hours over his drumset, perfecting his work with maniacal precision, “Whiplash” exposes the music industry as a demanding and controlling powerhouse, a complete contrast to the creative, glamorous environment portrayed in the mainstream.

The studio band Andrew hopes to join is led by conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a machine-like perfectionist with a selfish, obsessive and intimidating personality who comes to represent the harsh truth of the industry.

As Andrew plays for the conductor for the first time, Fletcher gives the audience a glimpse at his caring side by genuinely saying, “Just do your best.” But as soon as Andrew misses a beat, Fletcher responds by throwing a chair at his head.

Throughout the movie, the audience is stunned by the behavior of each character and the absurd but realistic plot that feeds on its own addictive outrageousness. The audience joins in Andrew’s struggle as he works toward becoming one of the greats, while also losing his sanity.

Director Damien Chazelle leaves the audience battling the question: Is it worth going crazy if great art results?

Teller’s performance was crucial to the film’s success. The actor surprised the film team with a talent for drumming and was able to play throughout the film without a stunt double. Teller conveys a seemingly shy and vulnerable character who again and again proves his resilience and strength – his aggressive but hilarious one-liners adding humor to the dark film.

During a dinner party with family friends, Andrew is overshadowed by a football star student, who urges Andrew to “come play with us.”

“Four words you’ll never hear from the NFL,” Andrew quips back.

Simmons also gives an outstanding performance, creating the perfect balance of rage and charm to portray Fletcher. His unrelenting character leaves the audience both intimidated by Fletcher’s intensity and in awe of his dedication.

Chazelle’s vision for the film, inspired by his own experience as part of a jazz studio band in high school, translates into the perfect thriller, leaving audience members gripping their seats in anticipation throughout each lengthy drum solo.

The riveting plot, a relentless take on the music industry, will leave viewers thinking long after the film, still uneasy from its 2-hour adrenaline rush.

Released: Oct. 17
Director: Damien Chazelle
Genre: Drama
Cast: Miles Teller (“The Spectacular Now”), J.K. Simmons (“Spider-Man”), Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser (“Life After Beth”)

 

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Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014 11:34 a.m.

What We’re Watching: ‘The Book of Life’

This post was written by Hatchet reporter Niamh Cahill-Billings.

“The Book of Life”

★★★★✰

Jorge Gutierrez’s newest animated film, “The Book of Life,” is a sweet, vibrant and surprisingly progressive alternative to the bombardment of horror films that normally take over theaters in October.

The film begins on the eve of Dia de los Muertos when La Muerta (Kate del Castillo), the leader of the rambunctious world of remembered souls, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who watches over the desolate world of forgotten souls, make a wager on who will win the pueblo’s sweetheart, Maria (Zoe Saldana).

Promotional poster for "The Book of Life."

Promotional poster for “The Book of Life.”

Xibalba bets that Maria will marry Joaquin (Channing Tatum), the charming Adonis that saves the pueblo from evil, while La Muerta supports Manolo (Diego Luna), a musician forced to follow his family’s bullfighting tradition.

As the plot unravels, this buoyant and refreshing fantasy manages to touch on hevy concepts of death and mortality, gender roles, bullfighting and Latino machismo while also maintaining the innocence and naiveté that make the film enjoyable for all ages.

“The Book of Life” joins the ranks of the growing body of animated movies that have abandoned cliché and antiquated sentiments of what it means to be a princess, petitioning instead to represent a wider spread of cultures in film.

Woven throughout the scenes is an American-Mexican fusion of style, a theme typical of Gutierrez work, given that he grew up in Tijuana, near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Aside from boasting the largest Latino voice cast in animated movie history, the film’s costume design represents a colorful amalgamation of cultures.

Manolo, the film’s protagonist, sports a Johnny Cash-inspired matador costume meant to emphasize growing globalization and cultural mélange between Mexico and the United States, Gutierrez said in a post-screening interview. Maria’s costume was inspired by Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, who dressed primarily in traditional Mexican attire.

But the soundtrack stands out as one of the best aspects of the film.

Diego Luna, the voice of Manolo, performs a wide variety of Latino covers of artists from Radiohead to Biz Markie and Mumford & Sons, crafting a mariachi interpretation of pop classics. While older audiences will recognize and appreciate the music choices, younger audiences are enthralled at the goofy mariachi band performing the popular tunes.

The one thing the film is missing is a villain: there’s no evil stepmother typical to so many animated films. Each character is multi-faceted and has understandable motives.

Instead, Gutierrez focuses on the pursuit of adventure rather than the strict good-versus-evil plot employed time and again, adding to the progressive nature of the film.

“The Book of Life” is a refreshing and dynamic experience, despite the heavy and somewhat controversial themes the film confronts. A focus on youth and the saliency of family with the backdrop of colorful Mexican culture lends the film a sense of airiness and ease, especially with the festive setting of El Dia de los Muertos.

It would be naive to say that cartoon culture is no longer dominated by European storylines featuring primarily white casts, but the growing trend to represent and celebrate other cultures, exemplified by “The Book of Life,” is both refreshing and promising.

Released: October 17
Director: Jorge Gutierrez (“El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera”)
Genre: Animation/Adventure
Cast: Diego Luna (“Milk,” “Elysium”), Zoe Saldana (“Avatar,” “Star Trek”), Channing Tatum (“21 Jump Street”) Kate del Castillo (“Under the Same Moon”), Ron Perlman (“Drive,” “Tangled”)

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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 10:27 p.m.

What We’re Watching

Hatchet reporter Olivia Kantor shares her latest television experience.

House of Cards – Chapter 1” (2013)
★★★★★

Viewers are first introduced to “House of Cards” central character, the congressman and majority whip Francis Underwood, as he strangles a dog in a crisp white tuxedo shirt.

Clearly, this is not a typical political thriller.

Directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards” is Netflix’s first foray into the television industry. Based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the show centers on the deliciously ruthless Congressman Underwood’s collusive ascent to power in D.C. After getting passed over for secretary of state, Underwood goes rogue, and as he states in his velvety smooth southern gait, he doesn’t belong to anyone anymore. This liberation sets off a string of political conquests filled with scandal, revenge and delightfully sinister dealings.

Spacey is by far the show’s greatest asset. He crafts Underwood as a study in contrasts: On the exterior he possesses a charismatic southern charm, but internally he maintains an eerie, sociopathic demeanor. This tension between the congenial congressman and the cold-hearted realist grabs the viewer and propels the narrative, as told in gripping scenes of Underwood venomously outlining plans to annihilate the careers of his political rivals as he nonchalantly sanitizes his hands.

Though “House of Cards” plays into an already overflowing niche of political thrillers, it brings something new to the tired genre. Underwood often breaks the fourth wall by addressing the camera directly, plotting and scheming with the viewers. The audience plays Spacey’s confidante, and in return, he offers them a chance to become the ultimate Washington insider.

Welcome to Washington, as Underwood announces to us—and the world of binge television.

Director: David Fincher
Genre: Drama
Cast:
Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Larry Pine

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Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 10:57 p.m.

What We’re Watching

Hatchet reporter Jesslyn Angelia shares her latest movie experience.

Warm Bodies” (2013)
★★★½✩✩

In many ways, “Warm Bodies” fits the mold of an archetypal romantic comedy.

But then there’s the whole zombie thing.

An inventive mash-up of Shakespeare and zombies based on the novel of the same name, “Warm Bodies” revolves around the life of R (Nicholas Hoult), an unusual zombie who, despite being limited to grunting and uttering monosyllabic sounds, gives the audience a glimpse of his mind with his narrative voice overs. On a hunt for brains, R encounters Julie (Teresa Palmer), a human, and falls in love with her after eating her boyfriend’s brain and inheriting his memories. From then on, R adopts a decidedly human trait: He becomes Julie’s protector, not her predator.

While “Warm Bodies” had a promising premise, its neatly packaged ending felt all too contrived. And in the scope of zombie movies, it’s entirely overshadowed by films like “Zombieland,” a more funny and original apocalyptic tale. I definitely expected more from director Jonathan Levine, known for films like “50/50.” Still, praise must be given for the solid cast and a fun, oldies soundtrack.

Ultimately, “Warm Bodies” is an elevated twist on a date night movie. It’s “Twilight” with more humor, less cheese-factor, a cohesive story line and an engaging cast.

Director:
Jonathan Levine
Genre: Comedy
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Analeigh Tipton, Dave Franco
Release Date:
Feb. 1

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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 11:03 p.m.

What We’re Watching

Hatchet reporter Emily Holland shares her latest movie experience.

Mama” (2013)
★★★✰✰

Not many horror films gain both critical acclaim and top box office ratings, but then again, “Mama” is not your average horror film.

Produced by Guillermo del Toro, the mastermind behind “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Mama” skyrockets the horror genre out of its typical cheap stereotype and into the spotlight.

Based on a short film of the same name, “Mama” follows the story of two young girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), who are abandoned in the woods by their father. Together, they survive for five years under the care of a mysterious being they call “mama.” When their uncle and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) gain custody of the children after they are found, they soon realize that becoming parents isn’t going to be an easy task, especially since the girls have turned into savages during their abandonment. As the girls become more civilized and grow closer to their new family, “mama” gets jealous and strange things start to happen around the house.

The first three-quarters of this movie are full of suspense and mystery. What exactly is “mama”? Initially, only glimpses of her distorted figure shadow are seen. But as the plot continues to develop and “mama” becomes less of a mystery, the scare factor drops dramatically. By the end of the movie, she became almost funny to look at. Instead of being scared by this character, the audience laughed whenever it popped up onscreen.

Still, the movie boasts admirable performances. Chastain does well as the punk-rock girlfriend turned caring mother, and, let’s face it, not all Academy Award nominees are going to be stellar all the time (take Jennifer Lawrence in “House at the End of the Street,” for example). Charpentier and Nélisse display remarkable performances, and show convincing, subtle changes in behavior throughout the movie.

Even with its ups and downs, “Mama” is worth it for a quick scary movie fix.

Director: Andrés Muschietti
Genre:
Horror
Cast:
Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier 
Release Date:
Jan. 18

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Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 9:27 p.m.

What We’re Watching

Hatchet staff writers Julie Alderman and Karolina Ramos share their latest movie experience.

Les Misérables” (2012)
★★★★½✰

Devoted fans of the musical, and even those rare literature buffs who have read the novel in its entirety, may have their worries about “Les Misérables,” the film adaptation of the famed Broadway production. Will the film actors butcher the songs musical aficionados grew up with? Could the studly Hugh Jackman pull off the look of an old man? Can Russell Crowe even sing?

The answers to such inquiries prove surprising in one of the most talked-about films of the season.

Taking place in the post-French Revolutionary period, the story revolves around Jean Valjean (Jackman), a petty felon who seeks to establish a new identity after a recent jail release. Unable to catch a break, Valjean is vigilantly chased around France by scrutinizing inspector Javert (Crowe). As he ventures throughout France, Valjean comes across desperate characters vying to survive amidst proletariat rebellion, from impoverished mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to student activist Marius (Eddie Redmayne).

Director Tom Hooper departed from traditional approaches to movie musicals, having the cast sing live instead of lip syncing with a prerecorded track. Some fared better than others, like musical theater alums Jackman and Hathaway, while others, namely Crowe, struggled to deliver revered Broadway classics with skill.  Hathaway’s visceral rendition of the classic “I Dreamed a Dream” rightfully left movie-goers in tears. And although we’re not complaining about Jackman’s abundant v-necks displaying off his muscular pecs, it was hard to believe he was playing a rugged 60 year-old man with a felonious past.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, a quick Wikipedia search may be in order to understand the complexities of the entirely-sung story. If you’re already averse to musicals, “Les Mis” is probably one to avoid.  Still, the film is sure to satisfy Broadway-devotees and French literature buffs alike.

Director: Tom Hooper
Genre:
Drama, Musical
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried
Release Date: Dec. 25

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Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 6:16 p.m.

What We’re Watching

Hatchet reporter Emily Holland shares her latest movie experience.

Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)
★★★★½✰

When two major actors step out of their traditional cinematic comfort zones, it serves tales of mental illness well. Just ask Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

A quirky interpretation of a Matthew Quick novel, “Silver Linings Playbook” tells the story of Pat Solitano, Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder after breaking into a violent outburst sparked by the discovery of his wife’s cheating ways. Upon being released from a treatment facility after eight months, Pat adopts a new philosophy of optimism and belief in silver linings in order to be reunited with his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee). Along his quest to fix his marriage, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widow of a police officer with her own set of complicated mental issues. The pair’s friendship flourishes through their dance partnership, but even more through their shared emotional struggles and past pains.

The film boasts many other “crazy” characters, including Robert De Niro as the OCD, football-obsessed Pat, Sr. and Chris Tucker as Pat’s friend from the mental hospital. Both Cooper and Lawrence deliver their best career performances in the movie, and the role is a refreshing change for the typically comedy-leaning Cooper. With their surprising yet superb chemistry, the pair display their mastery of the entire spectrum of emotions and an ability to convey a hidden complexity beneath the surface of their characters. The performances felt so authentic that the audience couldn’t help but clap after Pat and Tiffany performed their dance.

With a confidence that garners favor from audience members and critics alike, and a carefully crafted script which reveals a soft, humorous side to mental illness, this crazy, fun, drama-filled film is nearly flawless, carried by masterful direction, a clever script and unprecedented performances.

Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro
Release Date: Nov. 21

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Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 4:43 p.m.

What We’re Watching

Hatchet reporter Jesslyn Angelia shares her latest movie experience.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” (2012)
★★✰✰✰

I’ll start by saying that Twi-hards will not be disappointed. When watching what we hope is the last of the “Twilight” franchise, one will get what anyone would expect from the teen romance saga: a shirtless Taylor Lautner, sappy clichés and sparkling vampires. If that isn’t what you’re looking forward to, then expect to be rolling your eyes throughout the movie.

The movie begins where audiences were left off in Breaking Dawn – Part One. Bella (Kristen Stewart) awakens from her slumber to find that she’s been turned into a newborn vampire and proceeds to experiment with her new supernatural skills. Bella sees her daughter, Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy) for the first time, and is surprised to see that she’s grown so quickly. She’s even more surprised when she finds out that Jacob (Taylor Lautner) had imprinted on her daughter. The plot thickens as Irina (Maggie Grace), a fellow vampire, mistakes Renesmee for an “immortal child” and reports the Cullens to the Volturi, the ruthless group of vampire ruling class who immediately plan on exterminating Renesmee because of the threat she poses on exposing the vampires to the humans. In attempt to protect their daughter from the evil clutches of the Volturi, the Cullens go on a search for vampire witnesses all around the world in order to convince them that Renesmee is not a threat.

The movie is predictable and transitions poorly between scenes. The acting is less than mediocre (smile for once, Kristen Stewart?) and the awful CGI — especially of baby Renesmee — gives the movie a low-budget look. However, I must admit that there are some unexpected twists to the movie.  A steamy romance scene only fifteen minutes in proves scintillating, and the film’s climactic battle scene is largely entertaining and unforeseen until … well, let’s not spoil it.

Bottom line for all non-”Twilight” fans?  It wouldn’t hurt too much to watch this latest installment in spite of the inevitable eye rolling. If nothing else, you’ll at least get a good kick out of seeing all the decapitation.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Action
Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Dakota Fanning
Release Date: Nov. 16

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Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012 10:37 p.m.

What We’re Watching

Hatchet reporter Andrew Avrick shares his latest movie experience.

The Man with the Iron Fists” (2012)
★★★★✰

Why did it take this long for us to get an actual kung fu movie from the Wu-Tang Clan?

Written, directed, starring and narrated by RZA, the leader of the legendary rap collective, “The Man with the Iron Fists” forces this question on us for 90 whole minutes of blissfully cheesy action set to the rapper’s handpicked soundtrack. Armed with the guns of producer Quentin Tarantino and co-writer Eli Roth, RZA tests the limits of his R rating in what seems like his dream film.

RZA stars as the title character, a blacksmith who creates and sells elaborately designed weapons, including the infamous “iron fists,” to all of the film’s factions at a time when significant amounts of gold are being shipped through the blacksmith’s small 19th-century Chinese village. From there, the plot is simplistic and the characters absurd: Russell Crowe fits a Han Solo role with his ridiculous spinning knife revolver; Lucy Liu leads an army of acrobatic prostitutes; and a gang known as “The Lions,” who tout bladed claws, make an appearance. The entire film is a gigantic grisly showdown.

“The Man with the Iron Fists” delivers the perfect dose of Tarantino’s trashy old movie style.  Much attention is paid to recreating the classic kung fu genre, as specifics like intentionally poor captions, unnecessary quick zooms, and some awkward cinematography are reminiscent of the genre’s most famed films. This RZA brainchild’s incredible soundtrack is also worth noting. Scored and prepared by RZA himself and recorded by the likes of Wu-Tang members, the Black Keys and Kanye West – just to name a few – the soundtrack presents well-placed and not overused rap, with samples that give off both a funky and exotic feel.

The movie’s gleeful violence and fittingly campy style work well in the theater, as blood squirts out of every opening in an unrealistic, yet entirely entertaining grindhouse fashion.  Without question, “The Man with the Iron Fists” is something memorable, an absurd film that will please anyone going in with the right mindset.

Genre: Action
Director: RZA
Cast: RZA, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune
Release Date: Nov. 2

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