Monday, December 8, 2014

Reviews: Wild (and Mockingjay Mini-Review)

I have two movies to review from the past few weeks. I'll plow through the first one quickly. The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1 is the penultimate movie in Suzanne Collins' celebrated series of young adult book adaptations. I'm sure most of you have seen the first two movies in this series and this one. This is by far the weakest movie in the series to-date as the movie focuses on Katniss' role as a propaganda piece for the president of the rebellion (Julianne Moore). There really isn't a whole lot for stars Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen) and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark) to work with. The plot is slow and plodding and all we really get is a lot of buildup to an evident war in the final film. This is the first "Hunger Games" film without an actual Hunger Games competition and the hole in the story is painfully noticeable. That being said, it is still entertaining at times and the love triangle between Katniss/Peeta and Liam Hemsworth's wooden Gale is at least getting more complicated and interesting. Lawrence overacts some more like she did in Catching Fire but I'm hoping that the series can end on a high-note next year in Part 2. A mediocre 3 out of 5 JRs for Mockingjay Part 1.

After the critically acclaimed 2013 release of Dallas Buyers Club, Director Jean-Marc Vallee's  follows up with Wild, a story of Cheryl Strayed who spent over 90 days walking 1100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail in an attempt to recover from personal tragedy. Reese Witherspoon (in arguably the best performance of her career) plays the role of Cheryl, a 26-year-old free spirit whose dalliance with sex and drug addiction stands as the behavior issues she's walking away from during her epic solo hike. The movie does a great job of showing the vast quiet beauty of the American Western landscape and how an escape from the day-to-day grind can help clean a person's soul.

Vallee brings the audience into Cheryl's world in mid-hike as we see a frustrated Witherspoon hurtling a too-tight boot off of a cliff. We don't know why she's hiking at first but the source for her inspiration and purpose is eventually revealed through carefully placed flashback sequences that highlight the relationship between Cheryl and her mother (played brilliantly by Laura Dern). Through repeated moments and highlights of the bond between mother and daughter, it is easy to end up understanding Cheryl's need to "find herself" on this journey. Witherspoon herself gives her all to this role and doesn't ever really overact in making the audience believe in her will to keep going on her quest. She brings a bit of humor to Cheryl too in some lighthearted interactions with the various characters she meets on her trek (intermingled with a few situations of tense dredd in meeting some questionable men on her route). Witherspoon easily re-establishes herself as one of the more likeable actresses in Hollywood and I'm certain we'll see her as one of the front-runners for Best Actress next year.

Laura Dern delivers one of her best performances in years as Cheryl's mother Bonnie. We see just how much she cared for her two children and how full of life and joy she was. Dern's positive attitude and compassion help make the eventual loss for Cheryl that much more believable. It's such a small role, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some Oscar love for Dern for this performance. The third character in the film is nature itself. Vallee paints a beautiful picture of the PCT with wide shots of snowy hills, sprawling vistas and other symbols of personal isolation that convey just how alone Cheryl is on her journey.

I enjoyed this movie more than the gritty, harrowing, politically-charged Dallas Buyers Club. It really did make me feel connected to the broken bond of mother and daughter. I also found myself feeling like I should add one of these hikes to my bucket list (just a few days, not 90!) at some point. This movie doesn't need to be seen in the theater but I would recommend seeing it before Oscar night if at all possible.  This is one of the better movies of 2014 and a performance that Reese Witherspoon can be very proud of. 4.5 out of 5 JRs for Wild.

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