Movie Review ~ Book Club


The Facts
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Synopsis: Four lifelong friends have their lives forever changed after reading Fifty Shades of Grey in their monthly book club.

Stars: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Wallace Shawn, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Begley Jr.

Director: Bill Holderman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There are some that would say a comedy featuring four multi-award winning actresses of a certain age humorously discovering that “the next chapter is always the best” would be a no-brainer. Turns out they were spot on…Book Club has no brains to speak of. Here’s an aggressively dull, pandering movie that manages to do a disservice to its distinguished actors and an intended audience already woefully underserved. With its tin ear for realistic dialogue and a baffling cluelessness to how humans behave, no clichéd stone is left unturned.

Friends since college, Vivian (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), Sharon (Candice Bergen, Home Again), Carol (Mary Steenburgen, Parenthood), and Diane (Diane Keaton, And So It Goes) meet for their monthly book club in one of their pristine dwellings. Starting with Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and recently coming off of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, vampy Vivian introduces the ladies to E.L. James’ famous smut tome Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s the first red flag that pops up in the script from Erin Simms (Pete’s Dragon) and director Bill Holderman (A Walk in the Woods). As poorly written as it was, James’ book was a phenomenon and you’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard of it or seen the movies adapted from her trilogy of novels. Aside from Vivian, none of the ladies seems to know much about it and are shocked to discover its titillating scenes of bondage and explicit couplings.

All four ladies are, naturally, having trouble in the romance department and find that the book not so much ignites a newfound lust for life as it influences their choices. Hotelier and notoriously single Vivian runs into a long-lost paramour (Don Johnson, Django Unchained) who might have been the one that got away while federal judge Sharon, still bruised from her divorce, signs up for a dating service and winds up attracting the attention of Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) and Wallace Shawn (Admission). Carol is finding it difficult to connect with her husband (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in and out of the bedroom and widowed Diane ventures into a new relationship with a swarthy pilot (Andy Garcia, Jennifer 8) while her children pressure her to move closer to them.

What laughs there are to be had (and trust me, there aren’t many) come, surprisingly, from Bergen who I’ve always found to be a little aloof in films. Here she seems to be having a ball as a high-strung intellectual embarrassed she has to resort to finding a date online. Sadly, the film doesn’t give her a full arc so by the time we’ve gotten into her rhythm with Dreyfuss he’s disappeared, never to be heard from again. There’s even less time spent with Shawn who pops up in for a well-timed cameo but doesn’t get much chance to make an impression.

For my money, far too much time is spent with Fonda’s storyline, which is the most ham-fisted of the bunch. Wearing an awful wig and decked out in one gaudy outfit after another, it’s not hard to see where things are headed for the woman who likes to sleep with men but doesn’t like to “sleep” with them after. Always an underrated commodity in film and television, Steenburgen has nice moments here and there and while her thread is likely the most relatable, by the time the film has her tap dancing to a Meat Loaf song at a talent show you can literally see her working hard to keep up with things.

Then there’s Keaton who, to me, seems like the most natural fit for this type of froth. Sadly, Holderman and Simms make her character such a doormat and allow her children (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) to take her for granted far too long. (It’s also a mystery to me why there are two daughters when the film only needed one) Keaton coasts through much of the movie on fumes and only comes alive when there’s some physical comedy to execute, if only Holderman and Simms had given her character dimension of any kind.

What kind of message is the movie ultimately sending? A detriment to the film’s credibility is its stupefying lack of diversity. Taking place in present-day Los Angeles (and made on the cheap with a ton of questionable green screen and downright lousy Photoshop), there’s nary a person of color to be seen aside from a few random service workers. Purporting the myth of the white woman fantasy so grossly admired in Nancy Meyers movies with its affluent rich white ladies, Book Club feels completely out of touch and out of step with our society. Even worse, when you get right down to it, every woman in the film needs to be defined by the men they are with.  There’s something uncomfortable about watching that unfold before you.

Book Club is for easy readers only.

Movie Review ~ A Walk in the Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After spending two decades in England, Bill Bryson returns to the U.S., where he decides the best way to connect with his homeland is to hike the Appalachian Trail with one of his oldest friends.

Stars: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Nick Offerman, Kristen Schaal, Mary Steenburgen

Director: Ken Kwapis

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Bill Bryson’s novel A Walk in the Woods was first published in 1998 and has enjoyed a healthy popularity these past 17 years…so popular in fact that I wasn’t able to snag a copy from my local library in time to get it read before a recent viewing of the screen adaptation.  Now if I had started to read the book when the film was first announced, I would have had plenty of time.  Robert Redford originally optioned the book to produce and star in way back in 2005 and the road to the big screen was at times as rocky as the Appalachian Trail featured so prominently in the book.

After directors like Barry Levinson and Chris Columbus were considered, the film landed with Ken Kwapis who last directed the less than miraculous Big Miracle and instead of Redford’s first choice of Paul Newman to play the role of his gruff companion the role was taken up by Nick Nolte.  Good things come to those who wait, though, and fans of Bryson’s book and of the Oscar winning director of Ordinary People should find that the journey, though bumpy at times, is worth taking.

Novelist Bryson (Redford) was known for his travel books with a humorous spin and when he returns home after living most of his adult life abroad, he becomes keenly aware that life is moving along rapidly and there are still some adventures he wants to explore.  That comes in the form of an idea to hike the notoriously difficulty Appalachian Trail, a 2,200 mile journey that takes hikers from all walks of life through 13 states. But he can’t do it alone.  Or, more accurately, his wife (Emma Thompson, Beautiful Creatures, pleasant but with nothing much to do) won’t let the aging expat go on his own.  Working his way through phone numbers of friends, he gets a call from a man he hasn’t seen in 40 years.

Stephen Katz (Nolte, Noah) is a grizzled grizzly bear of a man, an out of shape sober alcoholic that happily volunteers to accompany Bryson on the five month excursion.  Soon Bryson and Katz are packed up and headed into the wild blue yonder, huffing and puffing after a ¼ mile of hiking.  Persistence is the name of game and over the course of the next several months the men will ramble onward, argue, unite, and come to understand the other better than they could have expected.

You don’t need a compass to see how it will all turn out but the fun is in the journey and while the destination may not be unexpected the spry performances are what really will be the selling point here.  Redford is enjoying a carefully considered comeback that started with The Company You Keep in 2012, followed by his critically acclaimed (but Oscar ignored) turn in All is Lost.  He even got his superhero fix with 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  Redford lets Nolte do most of the heavy comic lifting but his weary face (he looks like a half deflated balloon) and wise aura give him the authority the character needs.

If Redford looks a bit withered, Nolte is positively bursting at the seams.  With his burly mountain man hair and beard, a face that’s always a distinct shade of red, and that gravelly voice that sounds like he gargled with pebbles he’s right at home in Katz’s larger than life walking boots.  Also making glorified cameo appearances are Nick Offerman (We’re the Millers) in a throwaway role as an REI salesperson, Kristen Schaal (Despicable Me 2) playing an annoying trail acquaintance the two men can’t get rid of, and Mary Steenburgen (Parenthood) as a kindly motel owner that feels shoehorned in to test Bryson’s marital resolve.

At times the movie feels more like a CliffsNotes version of Bryson’s novel, with several characters popping up and then never returning. I was particularly puzzled by Steenburgen’s arc, the film takes time to introduce her and her mute mother, lets her explain how the motel has been in her family for 80 years, shows her working at the hotel’s restaurant, then promptly forgets about her as if she never existed.  Steenburgen (another Oscar winner) can play this role in her sleep and it feels like she was doing someone a favor by popping in.

The first half of the film is front loaded with comedic bits with the men getting to know one another while experiencing great physical exertion.  It’s during the final half and especially the finale that it turns into a meandering dramedy with both Nolte and Redford getting their moments of speechifying that feel obligatory rather than necessary.

There’s a lot visually to like here with John Bailey’s (The Way Way Back) cinematography capturing the picturesque vistas Bryson and Katz catch along the way.  It’s not all rosy, though, with several mountainous regions looking shockingly fake and more than a few shots of Bryson and Katz traversing the terrain where it’s comically clear that stand-ins are being used for the stars.

Stubbornly rated R simply for too many curse words, the film could have been softened a bit to come in with a PG-13.  Still, A Walk in the Woods hits its stride early and manages to make it to the end without too many blisters.  It’s a nice showcase for Redford and Nolte, a pleasant fork in the road in the latter half of their careers.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Walk in the Woods

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Synopsis: After spending two decades in England, Bill Bryson returns to the U.S., where he decides the best way to connect with his homeland is to hike the Appalachian Trail with one of his oldest friends.

Release Date:  September 2, 2015

Thoughts: Based on Bill Bryson’s popular memoir of traversing the Applachian Trail with his cantankerous friend, A Walk in the Woods brings together several formidable talents with a trail of Oscar nominations/wins behind them.  While I’ve never really warmed to Robert Redford (All is Lost) or Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, Noah) over the course of their careers (respect their work just can’t get a read on the person behind it all) this looks like a nice showcase for the two actors, though it can be argued that neither role is much of a stretch for the actors.  Co-starring Oscar winners Emma Thompson (Beautiful Creatures) and Mary Steenburgen (Parenthood, Dead of Winter, yeah…remember she’s an Oscar winner too!) this looks pleasant enough and more than just a comedic rehash of Wild.