Movie Review: “A Walk in the Woods”

wlkThey’re just a couple of sway-backed, high-mileage actors, each a dozen years older than their characters and showing it.

They cuss and fuss and reminisce and make all the same mistakes Reese Witherspoon’s character made in “Wild.” And then some.

The annoying “trail mate” shows up at the right time, the fetching innkeeper a little later and the bear a little later still. All very predictable when you take “A Walk in the Woods.”

But God help me, I grinned from beginning to end.

Bill Bryson’s hiking the Appalachian Trail memoir becomes a Robert Redford/Nick Nolte vehicle, an amusing and light “Slightly Grouchy Old Men” aimed squarely at an older audience.

Redford is Bryson, an award winning travel writer reaching retirement age, and the age when you spend too much time going to friends’ funerals. On an impulse, he decides that this Appalachian Trail that runs through the woods in the New Hampshire town where he lives just might be one last challenge to tackle.

His wife (Emma Thomson) is not keen on the idea, but resigned to it. His son is full of the “at your age” warnings. And the hiking gear salesman/trail nerd (Nick Offerman, on the nose) sees him coming. No matter. Bill will get out there and see the forests, the eastern wild “while there’s still some left.”

But rounding up a peer to go with him gets nowhere, until his estranged hometown pal Katz (Nolte) gets wind of the quest. They once backpacked and bickered through Europe. But that was 40 years ago. Bygones, right? Let’s “sneak in one last adventure before it’s too late,” he growls, and Bryson agrees.

Here’s how Nolte steals the movie. He once voiced a bear in a cartoon. With good reason. He wears a fedora that could be a leftover prop from “Cannery Row,” which he filmed 30 years ago. He looks, shambles along and talks like a guy who has crawled in and out of the bottle, gargled with gravel and stopped way too many right hooks with his cheekbones. For decades.

Katz growls, grumps and slows the pair down. Every funny episode, like encountering the nerdy know-it-all (Kristen Schaal) that they then must ditch — lest she chatter-nag them to death — earns a “Can’t WAIT to read about this in the book” from Katz.

And an “I’m not WRITING a book” from Bryson.

Mary Steenburgen, every senior citizen comedy’s go-to love interest, is the twinkling owner of a trailside inn. Because that’s all this pretends to be, a codgerish-comedy. None of the profundity of “Into the Wild” or “Wild.” Whatever these two backpacking old men learn — and the puffy, pink Nolte/Katz seems to look healthier, the more miles they cover — it’s not deep.

But it is funny, and Redford, gracious as ever, makes a wonderful straight-man for a comic co-costar who has the face, voice and posture of a geezer who probably should have tackled this healing hike 20 years earlier.

3stars2

MPAA Rating:R for language and some sexual references

Cast: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thomson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman
Credits: Directed by Ken Kwapis, script by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, based on the Bill Bryson book.  A Broad Green release.

Running time: 1:44

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Movie Review: “Dirty Weekend”

dirty

Neil LaBute’s fascination with shifting sexual politics in the world and the workplace is the crux of “Dirty Weekend,” a rather dull and talkative comedy about two mismatched colleagues trapped in Albuquerque for a day of true confessions and misbehavior.

It’s not even the weekend. This happens on a Monday. But it’s dirty enough, I suppose.

Les Moore (Matthew Broderick) is the stiff senior salesman set to make the company’s pitch to folks in Dallas. Naturally, it’s some sort of make-or-break sale. There’s a lot riding on it.

Natalie Hamilton (Alice Eve) is a younger Brit who figures she has just as much status, and that maybe she’s come along to see to it that sweater-vested Les doesn’t screw this up.

But the weather parks them in New Mexico. On a Monday. And Les can’t stand staying in the airport. There’s something drawing him to town, something very out-of-character that happened to him there, once. And Natalie is curious. She won’t let him trek in alone.

It’s not like they’re married, he protests. “We’re more like bandits, desperadoes.”

Exactly, she says. Like “Butch & Sundance.” And Butch never let Sundance ride off alone.

“Together…the whole POINT of the ampersand!”

LaBute tries to hide the nature of their relationship, but we can see, from the start, that they aren’t a couple. Broderick has a middle age spread, and Eve? Still “Out of My (and his and yours) League.”

The pair have drinks, get personal and exchange secrets. His has to do with what happened to him in Albuquerque. Hers has to do with that leather collar that her turtleneck sweater hides. A “dirty weekend” is when you take a no-holds-barred cheater’s break from a committed relationship. He’s married, she’s living with someone. Who will crack?

LaBute, in his 50s now, gives Natalie nasty, blunt vulgarisms that she trots out as she drags information out of Les.

“You know what? Women never used to talk like that.”

It never amounts to much. The performances feel mannered and stage-bound thanks to dialogue built on overly structured exchanges. The banter is more frank than funny, the situations a tad too primly handled to pay off. LaBute’s early films, based on his own plays (“In the Company”) could be read as a reaction to his Mormon upbringing. “Dirty Weekend” sees him age out of that edginess, thinking his dirty thoughts and sort of losing his nerve with what to do with them.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, with frank sexual discussion, profanity

Cast: Matthew Broderick, Alice Eve, Phil Burke
Credits: Written and directed by Neil LaBute. A Phase 4/eOne release.

Running time: 1:33

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Movie Review: “Bloodsucking Bastards”

bldThere’s a new set of criteria movies — especially indie films with little or no marketing — must meet. And Indie World is a little slow catching onto it.

Used to be, you made your indie film with festivals in mind. You could afford to be patient in your storytelling, though truth be told, selection committee folk toss your DVD in the trash if you don’t get ON with it. Eventually.

Now, you need to fret over how Netflixable your film is. If we’re willing, and many of us are, to give an unknown but promising title a try on Netflix, how long before we bail and look for something that gets right down to business?

Now that I’ve stalled and beaten around the bush…case in point — “”Bloodsucking Bastards.” The title tells us it’s about vampires, and possibly funny.

The comedy troupe Dr. God cooked it up. And it opens with a gory “the grossest thing I’ve ever seen” moment. Why not wade in?

Why not? That’s almost the only real action or borderline funny thing to it for 45 minutes or so. And it’s only 86 minutes long.

Veteran character player Fran Kranz (“The Cabin in the Woods”) is Evan, a guy semi in charge of a seriously dysfunctional and lazy sales center. He’s up for a promotion, something his especially lazy (video games at his computer all day) wiseass pal Tim (Joey Kern of “Cabin Fever” and “Super Troopers”) relishes.

Then the Big Boss (Joel Murray) brings Max, Evan’s nemesis, on board. Max (Pedro Pascal) is there to shake things up before a round of layoffs, mixing threats with heated pep talks to the troops, to “sell a bunch of useless crap to the fat losers in Alabama and bored housewives in Ohio.”

Which they do. Only bloody things start happening, and only Evan and Tim seem to notice them. Sexual intrigues (Emma Fitzpatrick) take a back seat as the two dopes start to figure out what’s happening, and what to do about it.

“I looked some stuff up on Wikipedia.”

Eventually, the blood starts to spurt and maybe, between the gruesome laughs, we notice the metaphor for today’s Race to the Bottom employment practices. The Undead are loyal, work longer hours and are cheaper to keep.

The one-liners are feeble — “Bam! Snap!” — the performances mostly perfunctory. It takes forever to get going, something nobody who hasn’t bought a ticket will sit still for.

But the finale has to be seen to be believed. Remember, we’ve been promised “the grossest thing I’ve ever seen.”

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, with bloody violence, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Fran Kranz, Joey Kern, Emma Fitzpatrick, Joel Murray
Credits: Directed by Brian Max Joseph, script by Dr. God and Ryan Mitts. A Scream Factory/Shout! Factory release.

Running time: 1:26

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Final Summer Box Office Weekend: “War Room” routs “No Escape_ and Zac Efron is no longer a movie star

boxofficeThe Kendrick Brothers’ latest faith-based foray was marketed to Protestant churchgoers and is doing the kind of business that “Facing the Giants” and “Fireproof” could only dream of.

It’s running second at the box office, as of Friday night, and could manage a healthy $10 million+ over the weekend. A weak weekend, yes, but that’s smart marketing, too. Last weekend of the summer is home to the dregs, and “War Room,” about a little old lady’s “War Room” for prayer (haven’t seen it), was sure to stand out.

Where is the money going for this Sherwood Baptist Church production? Feeding the hungry, one would hope. Movie business accounting being what it is, you wonder.

“Straight Outta Compton” looks to win the weekend — again — but “War Room” is neck and neck with it, at least at this juncture.

“No Escape” with Owen Wilson, Lake Bell (LOTS of Internet searching for luscious Lady Lake) and Pierce Brosnan, is managing a respectably weak opening. Wilson is probably pinning his hopes to “Zoolander 2” at this point. Irrelevant, fading box office hero.

But Zac Efron? His Techno party picture “We Are Your Friends,” — And WHO came up with that awful title? — is bombing.On the weakest weekend of the summer, it couldn’t crack to the top 12.

News flash, Techno sucks. And the people into it sure aren’t going to see a ZAC EFRON movie about it. So.

“Jurassic World” is still making millions — $645 or so by summer’s end —  “Minions” is rolling in the cash, here and abroad, and “Mission: Impossible” is closing in on $170 million.

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Movie Review” “Z is for Zachariah”

“Z for Zachariah” is a good looking film built on the simplest sci-fi premise of them all.

Last woman on Earth? Meet the last man. Okay, MEN.

Margot Robbie (TV’s “Pan Am”) is our heroine, a methodical young woman who has survived the radiation disaster on a remote mountaintop farm. She occasionally makes forays into her now-abandoned nearby town. Candy raids, mostly. She has to wear an improvised haz-mat suit to survive those.

Ann hoes her garden, checks her traps, tends her chickens and plays the organ in the chapel her family built on the farm. Her dog is her only companion.

Until the scientist shows up. Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “12 Years a Slave”) was in a bunker, underground. He stumbles into her oasis farm, a sickly and somewhat paranoid survivor. He’s more worldly, more educated. As he recovers, he pitches suggestions that help her run the farm and retrieve the technology of a civilization that has ended.

“Planning. Rebuilding.” She likes those ideas. They fit into her theology. Her collection of books is built around a set of Bible reading instruction books — “A is for Adam” — thus, the film’s title, “Z is for Zachariah.”

zachIt’s when Loomis wants to strip the wood from the chapel to build a mill race (and create hydro-electricity) that she figures he’s going too far.

The film of Robert C. O’Brien’s novel promises to set us up with something profound as the man of science tries to rationalize to the woman of faith the need to start civilization over again. She could be making arguments against science, which brought on their doom, against desecrating the church.

But she’s just glad to have a man around, one who can introduce her to a little more of the world — to love, for instance, and alcohol, the one thing she never bothered scavenging from the abandoned country store.

And then the miner shows up.  Chris Pine matches Robbie, drawl-for-drawl. Caleb is obviously a better match for Ann. Loomis, being a scientist, can see that.  And “Z for Zachariah” becomes a half-hearted love-triangle tale for the End Times.

New Zealand and West Virginia provide the striking settings, and you can almost see what the cast saw in this as promising and meaty. But the script skips past deeper debates and doesn’t deliver much in the line of fireworks for the love triangle.

While “Z for Zachariah” can be embraced for taking civilization’s collapse out of the hands of zombies, it’s no “Book 0f Eli.” You’d have to go back to a Medieval plague picture, “The Last Valley,” to find a more apt ancestor. And more “apt” doesn’t add up to “better.”

2stars1
MPAA Rating: PG – 13 for a scene of sexuality, partial nudity, and brief strong language

Cast: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine
Credits: Directed by Craig , script by Nissar Modi, based on the Robert C. O’Brien novel . A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:35

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“Suffragette” — a very cool poster.

suff

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Movie Review: “Learning to Drive”

benPeople who only know Ben Kingsley for his breakout performance in the epic “Gandhi” or his recent years of playing the go-to Brit villain would be surprised by the variety in his non-Jaguar commercial resume.

There was the arm’s-length romance set against the release of aquarium-bound sea turtles, “Turtle Diary,” and the darkly romantic longing of a backwater spy of “Pascali’s Island.”

“Learning to Drive” fits in with that part of his repertoire, a mild-mannered not-quite-romantic romance about a Sikh driving instructor and the harried, depressed and distracted student, a woman going through a traumatic divorce.

Kingsley is Darwan, a dignified and somewhat stiff Sikh, a workaholic who seems to support an apartment full of Sikh men who turn out to be illegal immigrants.

By night, he’s a cabbie. And then, after a morning visit to the temple (Kingsley is meticulous and respectful in his practice of rituals), he checks into his day job — as a very patience, quite conscientious driving instructor.

Wendy (the vivacious Patricia Clarkson) meets Darwan on the worst night of her life. Her husband (Jake Weber) is leaving her, trying to escape her clutches in a cab. And she takes the fight — profane and weepy and physical — into Darwan’s taxi.

When she leaves a parcel in his car and he returns it, he leaves his card. On an impulse, with her daughter (Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s other daughter) living on a farm in Vermont, Wendy resolves to finally learn how to drive. But she changes her mind in the sober light of day. Darwan has to trick her into sitting behind the wheel.

He quietly and patiently gives her a step-by-step instruction. Wendy, a book critic always lost in her thoughts (GREAT trait to have, if you’re a New York City driver), absent-mindedly follows them. And then snaps to attention. Not happening, she says, after getting halfway out of the parking space.

“You have to go forward now,” Darwan prods. “I haven’t taught you to back up.”

The comedy here comes from their gentle, sentimental friendship. Wendy is struggling with the loss of a spouse of 21 years, the fact that maybe her inattention contributed to the split. Darwan has a past of his own, and he’s being nagged into an arranged marriage (to Sarita Choudhury, who first gained fame for “Mississippi Masala”).

“Learning to Drive” was written by the screenwriter of “What Lies Beneath” and directed by the comedy-impaired Isabel Coixet (“Elegy,” “My Life Without Me”). It was conceived as a project aimed at older viewers, and it works well enough — charming scenes, the odd bit of comically frank profanity or explicit sex.

But close-ups here are used as pandering to the actors, not in service of the story. Scene after scene is chopped up with unnecessary attempts at “moments” played with a single face in the frame. The editing is unusual enough to call attention to itself, never a good thing.

The characters are roughed out nicely. Wendy’s temper is always getting the better of her. The lady has quite the foul mouth.

“I think it’s time to discuss road rage.”

But Kingsley is entirely too stiff and proper in this part to suggest any heat between them, and even if that serves the script, the film cries out for more warmth. It’s a chilly piece, scattered funny situations and laugh-out-loud lines, and a good cast performing them.

“Learning to Drive” needed more culture clash, more scenes between student and teacher, more sparks — even if they’re kind of chaste.

“Love is the road to God.”

“I unfriended God a long time ago.”

A little more of that, and a little less attention to recreating Sikh rituals or Wendy’s ongoing break-up might have helped “Drive” take off.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content

Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Sarita Choudhury
Credits: Directed by Isabel Coixet, script by Sarah Kernochan. A Broad Green release.

Running time: 1:30

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Movie Review: “No Escape”

es2Hand it to Pierce Brosnan. He’s never turned in that License to Kill for an AARP card.

He shows up as a sort Bond ex Machina in “No Escape,” a genuinely harrowing thriller about an American family trapped in the middle of a Southeast Asian coup.  He’s the back-slapping barfly who is, of course, more than he seems when he bumps into the Dwyers on the flight in.

We’ve already seen the bemedaled prime minister and his staff slaughtered in the film’s opening scene. And the guy with the beard and jovial accent is, well, Pierce Brosnan. We know this “Hammond” fellow is going to come in handy when the chips are down. As they will be in about a day.

Jack (Owen Wilson) has a much-needed new job as a hydraulic engineer. Annie (Lake Bell) is his leery wife. Their four-star hotel seems like an island in the middle of something else entirely (The country is never identified as Cambodia or Laos or Thailand).

“Welcome to the Third World,” Jack crows.

“Actually, it’s the FOURTH world,” she snaps.

es1

Then the mayhem starts. Mobs with guns and machetes, wearing those red scarves that we remember as the trademark of the Khmer Rouge, take to the streets, overwhelming the riot police and then the army. They hack up or shoot anyone in a suit, especially foreigners. Yeah, there’s something about Jack’s work that is inspiring this, but the analog the filmmakers were going for is straight-up savagery –Khmer Rouge.

There’s no cell service, no escape from the hotel. But they’ve got to get to the embassy. And the Dwyers have to do this with two somewhat traumatized pre-teen daughters.

Filmmakers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle (“As Above, So Below,” “Quarantine”) serve up a horrific string of “Sophie’s Choice” situations, in between the breathless chases and brutal violence. Children are hurled off buildings, parents must weigh, in an instant, how their sacrifice might keep the others alive.

Because at every turn, ugly, progress-and-foreigner hating locals are butchering everyone in sight.

“No Escape” reminded  me of the British films about the Zulu Wars from the 1960s — a sea of savage brown people indiscriminately hating and hacking up whites. The way the movies got away from that Cowboys/Indians racism was to turn those few-against-many tales into zombie pictures. Nobody can reason with a zombie. Nobody cares when zombies are mowed down. It’s no surprise that the Dowdles cut their teeth in horror films.

Planting a speech where Hammond justifies the locals’ rage is only going to provoke eye-rolls. And much of what has happened before that has crossed into melodrama, with each nick-of-time delivery from death, each narrow escape.

Which kind of gives the lie to the title, doesn’t it? As visceral as the film often is — and Bell really SELLS the fright and the awful choices they’re facing — you have to guess, early on, where the sacrifice will come from and who will be delivered from the restless natives.

At least that deliverance is bit ironic, if you know your Indochinese history.

2stars1

MPAA Rating:R for strong violence including a sexual assault, and for language

Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan
Credits: Directed by John Erick Dowdle, script by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. A Weinstein Co. release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Preview: “Youth” promises breathtaking photography, sunny Italy, and a bunch of Oscar winners

Paolo “The Great Beauty” Sorrentino directed “Youth,” with Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Rachel Weisz all plopped into Italian locations in a tale of talent, art, age and beauty.

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Movie Review: “7 Chinese Brothers”

brothersJason Schwartzman may be a little old for the part, but there’s something of a “voice of his generation” spin to his role in “7 Chinese Brothers.”

Larry, his character, is sarcastic, smart and utterly disgruntled. Nothing works out for him, which may be why he’s become Every Employer’s Nightmare.

He steals from the tip jars and the bar at the Buca di Beppo restaurant where he works. And when he’s fired, he promptly keys the car of a colleague who made his life tough there.

He mocks the application form at the Quick Lube joint where he applies next. Lupe (Eleanor Pienta), the cashier, is immune to his charms.

“Cannot BELIEVE you guys hired me,” he cracks. “Has anyone ever gotten fired on the first day?”

Once employed, he’s instantly bullied into stealing change from customer’s cars

Larry drinks almost constantly, visits his equally smart-mouthed granny (Olympia Dukakis) and cadges drugs off his pal, an orderly/nurse there (Tunde Adebimpe).

His most profound conversations are with his French bulldog, and through them, we pick up on his intelligence and just the sort of limited expectations the world offers somebody like him in this race-to-the-bottom economy.

Bob “Somebody Up There Likes Me” Byington’s film is random and silly and very short. Like Tunde Adebimpe’s debut film, “Jump Tomorrow,” the only word that sums it up is “twee.”

But there’s a hint of profundity in the depiction of a brotherhood/sisterhood of minimum wage slaves — convenience store clerks who help you get the best deal on vodka, managers who cut you a break when hiring.

And for all that it doesn’t amount to, “7 Chinese Brothers” — And no, I didn’t catch what the title means. An REM song, apparently every bit as random as this. — Schwartzman gives this slight comedy enough juice to make it worth 75 minutes of your time.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, with fisticuffs and profanity

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Tunde Adebimpe, Eleanore Pienta, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Root
Credits: Written and directed by Bob Byington. A Screen Media release.

Running time: 1:15

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