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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Return to Sender

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Synopsis: A nurse living in small town goes on a blind date with a man who is not the person he says he is.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Do you hear that sound?  That’s the sound of Rosamund Pike, the Oscar-nominated star of Gone Girl, being pigeonholed…at least according to the trailer for Return to Sender.  Looking like a dramatic tale of revenge with a few tricks up its sleeve, I’m sure Pike (who you should also check out in Jack Reacher) will be up for the task but I wonder if the film wouldn’t be better served by an actress that hadn’t recently played a flawed anti-heroine (and played it damn well).  I’m willing to believe that Pike filmed this before Gone Girl landed her on Hollywood’s A-List and while I’m interested to see how much of a welcome diversion this will be, I just have a sinking feeling that it’s going to be compared unfavorably to Pike’s 2014 hit.  Time will tell.

Movie Review ~ Noah

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man is chosen by God to undertake a momentous mission of rescue before an apocalyptic flood destroys the world.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, Nick Nolte

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the recent religious releases Son of God and God is Not Dead! doing surprisingly good box office business, I’m sure the studio heads at Paramount were breathing a tad easier as the release date for Noah crept ever closer. Buzz had been that the execs weren’t very confident in director Darren Aronofsky’s cut of the film so they screened several of their own versions to audiences to gauge their reaction. In the end the director’s cut won out, leaving me to wonder how bad the other edited versions were.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters much which version ended up being released because the whole film is such a meaty hunk of expired baloney that it may not have been salvageable in any form.

It’s hard to know exactly how to take Aronofsky’s Noah. Most people plunking down coin to see the epic will be expecting a re-telling of the Old Testament story about a man, an ark, and lots of animals trotting up two by two to avoid a massive flood that will wipe out civilization. What these people won’t be expecting, however, is a bloody and violent film featuring formerly A-list stars playing infuriatingly stubborn people that you wouldn’t want to spend 40 minutes on a boat with, let alone 40 days in torrential rain.

After a brief opening that covers the first few passages of the Bible, the film goes its own way by introducing mystical snake skins and stone creatures that one minute want to destroy man and the next are helping Noah and his brood build the ark. Looking like castoffs from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, these iff-ily rendered creatures supposedly are fallen angels encased in rock after they landed on earth in a fiery storm.

The threat of the destruction of civilization isn’t enough, though, so Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel throw in another villain of the human kind in the form of a descendent of Cain. More extraneously inconsequential than interesting and played by the gruff Ray Winstone (Snow White and the Huntsman) as if his life depended on it, the character falls into high camp early on when we see his flowing locks of blonde hair that would make Rapunzel drool.

With about 50 minutes of actual material to work with, the film is stretched to a punishing 139 minutes by including lots of grandiose speechifying from nearly every main character…almost as if they had it in their contracts to be given their moment to shine. So we get lots of introspective musings and preachy pontificating on man’s inhumanity to man. Not wholly or outwardly religious, the film tries to make the issue of a wicked society not so much a Biblical idea but a atheistic one.

I’ve been a fan of Aronofsky’s work for a while now, though the only film of his I can bring myself to revisit is Black Swan, his brilliant psychological drama from 2010 that won Natalie Portman an Oscar. That film was a hallucinatory and riveting journey into madness and though Aronofsky tries to get inside the head of Noah in a similar fashion, it doesn’t the same effect.

Though he may have made a good Noah on paper, Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) seems so out of touch with the kind of roles he should be playing that it’s becoming pretty fascinating to see the jobs he’s taking on. For my money, he should have played Winstone’s part and let someone like Michael Fassbender or Christian Bale (both were offered the role and declined) have the role. Aronofsky has imagined Noah as so devout to his Creator that he is willing to do horrible things…and something about Crowe’s wild-eyed approach comes across more zealot than pious.

Co-starring with Crowe for the second time in 2014 (the first being February’s lame-o Winter’s Tale), Jennifer Connelly makes some headway with her underwritten role, though it comes late in the game with an impassioned speech that leaves her face awash with tears and snot. With her hair never much out of place and her teeth gleaming white (Noah’s family clearly had a good dental plan), Connelly brings a kind of precision to the role that works in her favor.

Another pair of co-stars re-united, The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) and Logan Leerman are part of the Noah pack and while it’s appreciated that Watson continues to stretch her wings outside of the Harry Potter franchise, this role seems to get away from her. As the only other major female in the film, she delivers every important speech Connelly can’t be present to give herself.

Then there’s Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock), getting an early start on his yearly cinematic appearance in the “grizzled old man” role…this time playing Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather. I’m not sure Hopkins even reads his scripts anymore before signing on to a film because the Oscar winning actor has little to do but pass along useful information when needed. The animal stars of the show are entirely CGI and factor in very little to the overall scheme of things.

Visually, the film looks great in typical Aronofsky fashion. Shot in Iceland, the cinematography from Matthew Libatique (Iron Man 2) is stunning and is aided by a strong sound design layered nicely in with Clint Mansell’s (Stoker) rich score. Of particular interest is a five minute sequence halfway through the film where Crowe narrates the Genesis story, brought to life in stunning fashion. I’d recommend seeing the film (eventually when you can fast-forward it) for that segment alone.

So what’s my problem with the film? I’m not a Bible thumper or Sunday School devotee that had to have everything in perfect order and sticking to just the facts, jack. No, I’d have been totally on board with the film Aronofsky was trying to make…if I could just grasp what film that was. Though the filmmakers can suggest all day long that their goal was to keep the film non time-specific, the costume design suggests post-apolopytic, not B.C. chic.

For as visually and aurally pleasing as the movie most certainly is, the perils depicted are incredibly unpleasant to sit through. The last 20 minutes are particularly rough going and even for this habitual watch checker, I started feeling like time was going backward rather than inching closer to the end credits.

Had this film been called, say, Bernard or Jethro I think I would have been able to take it with a finer grain of salt. Slapping Noah on the film and then turning the story into a Middle Earth meets Waterworld soggy epic robs the film of its voice and robs the audience of $10. I still like Aronofsky and applaud him for having the balls to do what he’s done here…but I feel like I want to throw the Good Book at him.

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Movie Review ~ The Company You Keep

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity.

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Nick Nolte

Director: Robert Redford

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The first of two movies that Robert Redford starred in in 2013 was this curious little project that Redford also sat comfortably in the director seat for.  Though the film came and went with very little fanfare, I’d expect some collateral buzz to be drummed up for it when Redford is (hopefully) nominated for an Oscar for his career-high work in All is Lost.

Redford has seen more action as a director lately and he seems to be enjoying this part of his career which appears to be having a slow moving but surefooted renaissance.  It’s known that Redford is picky about the material he’ll take on as an actor and perhaps more so with his directing work which makes The Company You Keep all the more puzzling because it’s one of those half-there efforts that no one seems particularly invested in.

Scanning the cast list I get the notion that Redford peppered his film with actors he’s long wanted to work with and vice versa.  Why else would some big name stars drop in for what amounts to glorified cameos in an independent picture?  I kept thinking that actors like Richard Jenkins (White House Down, Jack Reacher) were just stopping by for lunch in Sundance when Redford asked if they could film a quick scene before dessert was served.

When Redford’s activist past is exposed by an opportunistic journalist (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), he goes on the run and works his way through people from his younger days he’s long forgotten and who would just as soon forget about him.  Even with their brief screen time Oscar winners Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Robot & Frank) and Julie Christie are effective as two fellow radicals that re-enter Redford’s present in two very different ways.  And keep your eyes out for Brit Marling (The East), Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer), Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, I Love Trouble), and Terrence Howard (Prisoners) in the aforementioned brief supporting turns.

An overlong film, The Company You Keep winds up feeling like the guest that won’t take the hint to go thanks to several false endings.  While it’s diligently made like most Redford films are, there’s an evident emptiness at the core that doesn’t give the film any lasting weight past the final credits — that’s a shame when you consider the might of the stars Redford has assembled.

I should add it also doesn’t help that Redford has cast LaBeouf who continues to be one of the more overrated yet increasingly disliked actors in Hollywood.  Known for badmouthing his costars and film projects, LaBeouf had an overdue denouement at the end of 2013 when it came out that one of his short films was plagiarized from preexisting work.  It’s hard to take him seriously as a flawed film persona because LaBeouf’s personal persona is so much worse.

That casting aside, there’s admittedly a level of sophisticated maturity that should prove interesting to the more astute viewer.  I absolutely suggest you see Redford’s solemn work in All is Lost before taking this one on (he’ll also appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) but if you’re a Redford devotee or a fan of the political dramas/thrillers of the late 70’s you may find something worth your time here.

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Down From the Shelf ~ I Love Trouble

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Peter Brackett and Sabrina Peterson are two competing Chicago newspaper reporters who join forces to unravel the mystery behind a train derailment.

Stars: Nick Nolte, Julia Roberts, Saul Rubinek, Marsha Mason, James Rebhorn, Robert Loggia

Director: Charles Shyer

Rated: PG

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  On paper, I’m sure that writing team Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer thought they had a winner.  Aping the same style of rat-a-tat comedy that worked so well for the likes of Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn in movies such as Bringing Up Baby, I Love Trouble was intended to be a modern take on a classic concept.  Unfortunately, Meyers/Shyer have overstuffed their turkey of a plot with about 40 minutes of extra material and made more than a few blunders in the casting department.

At the time of its release, Roberts was the top movie star and could have easily been the only headliner to draw in crowds.  They wanted to see their pretty woman in light romantic fare and matched up with a swoon-worthy fella to recapture that magic.  Now, no one is saying that Roberts had to stick with that formula and to her credit I think she signed on to the film with the best of intentions.  It’s the addition of Nolte as her co-star that put a large hole in an already weighty ship.

Nolte is a strong dramatic actor, a ruggishly handsome dude that worked his way through the 70’s and 80’s in a string of diverse turns.  He’s so uncomfortable in this type of movie that it’s almost painful to watch him try.  It was well documented that Nolte took this film for the money and didn’t get along well with Roberts…and it all shows up on screen.  Though Roberts and Nolte give it their best effort and create a few interesting moments, the lack of chemistry is apparent to the point where you almost beg them not to kiss.

It’s not all their fault, though.  The script from Meyers/Shyer and Shyer’s direction are wooden and forced without a lot of cohesion. There’s a vague murder mystery plot that reporters Roberts and Nolte team up to try to solve (mostly for their own glory rather than any real dedication to the good of the public) and to say the reasons behind the murder were loony would be an understatement.  There’s a big to-do about growth hormones in cows and how it causes cancer…great stuff for setting the scene for romance, right?

The movie is way too long and should have been trimmed down from 123 minutes to 90…just enough time for the mechanics of the film to present themselves and run their course.  I remember seeing this film in the theaters when it was released and not being a huge fan.  I’ve been drawn to it several times since and will learn my lesson that it’s just not a very good film someday.  I do love bad movies but I do not love the trouble this one causes.

The Silver Bullet ~ Parker

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Synopsis: A thief with a unique code of professional ethics is double-crossed by his crew and left for dead. Assuming a new disguise and forming an unlikely alliance with a woman on the inside, he looks to hijack the score of the crew’s latest heist

Release Date:  January 25, 2013

Thoughts: The synopsis reads like any number of similar double crossed man on the run films and pretty much every Jason Statham film released.  What I think may just set this one apart is director Taylor Hackford at the helm and smart screenwriter John McLaughlin (Black Swan, Hitchcock) adapting Donald Westlake’s pulpy novel.  The presence of Lopez instantly puts Out of Sight into my brain so I’m going to have to put that excellent movie aside if I’m going to enjoy Parker in the slightest.  I’m thinking this will be a nice diversion and nothing more…but am hoping it delivers like I think it might.