A Walk In The Woods

 

Ever since I read Edward Garvey’s 1972 book about his Appalachian Trail thru-hike several decades ago, I’ve fantasized about hiking the AT. But a thru-hike, from Georgia to Maine, requires a huge chunk of time away from work and family.

Last year’s Wild, which chronicled Cheryl Strayed’s trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, provided vicarious thrills, but that tale was more about a woman’s self-discovery than about her actual hike.

The new film A Walk In The Woods satisfies outdoor adventure desires on many levels, but disappoints on others. Based on the book by humorist/memoirist Bill Bryson, the story walks a fine line (pun intended) between serious quest and chucklefest.

Sadly, the main flaw of A Walk In The Woods is the casting of Robert Redford in the lead role as Bryson. Not because he’s too old for the role (though he probably is), but because he seems to be phoning in his performance. Did he only do the movie to placate his fellow producers?

Happily, the casting of Nick Nolte as Bryson’s long ago acquaintance from Des Moines, Stephen Katz, is a masterful choice. Nolte plays an unkempt recovering alcoholic whose life hasn’t worked out as nicely as Bryson’s. Emma Thompson appears as Mrs. Bryson, playing the role she often plays—a not particularly likable, very British woman.

Bryson’s idea for the expedition, as depicted in the movie, seems like a sudden random urge. (Whereas you or I might give such an undertaking a bit more consideration.)

After a trip to REI for gear (where Nick Offerman makes a so-quick-if-you-blink-you’ll-miss-it appearance as a clerk), this odd couple shoves off from the AT’s start point in Georgia. Episodes along the way include encounters with annoying solo hiker Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), a pair of fierce looking bears, a surprise snowstorm and a flirty off-trail motel operator (Mary Steenburgen).

After each episode, Katz tells Bryson, “You’ve got to put that in the book.” Bryson keeps saying he’s not going to write a book about the hike. (Of course, he did.)

Director Ken Kwapis (a man with a deep movie and TV resumé) has crafted a film that’s beautiful to look at and generally enjoyable. I would’ve liked to see more of their story, but 1:44 is long enough for most folks. The film is rated R for language, but is not particularly offensive.

A Walk In The Woods is expected to generate increased hiker traffic on the AT, just as Wild has done for the PCT. My personal desire to hike the full Appalachian Trail will have to wait until my next lifetime, but I’ll be thinking of Bryson and Katz the next time I ascend the bluff at Castlewood Park or traipse through the meadow at Queeny Park.

Bully

“Bully” is a clever piece of film making. The stories come from the heartland: smaller towns in Iowa, Oklahoma, Georgia and Mississippi. The words come from both kids and parents. The blame (for not controlling bullies) lands squarely on school administrators.

“Bully” introduces us to kids who cope and kids who were not able to cope. We come to know kids who left the world, via family videos and comments from their parents and friends. We meet a girl who threatened school bus bullies with a gun. A boy who manages to grin and bear it while being pummeled daily on the bus is revealed to be a truly likeable kid.

Scenes in the movie include: A town hall meeting in Georgia following a 17-year-old boy’s suicide, at which school board members and high school administrators fail to show up. A middle school in Iowa, where leadership promises to help to address a student’s situation, but his parents are dubious. A father in Oklahoma who decides to move because of the way his daughter and his family are treated.

For me, the movie stirred some past memories of horrible things that have happened to my three kids as well as things that I endured decades ago. (Damn, I hated riding that school bus to junior high!) I can assure you that principals and counselors were just as hesitant to mete out appropriate punishment in years past as they are today.

In fairness to school administrators, though, moviegoers should know that the movie is edited in such a way as to make certain school leaders appear soft on bullying or, worse, almost buffoonish. Make no mistake: this is advocacy film making.

“Bully” will not end bullying. As long as some of us are smaller and weaker or look different and act differently, bullying will occur. But giving voices and faces to the downtrodden will certainly generate conversations that may lead to actions.

Regarding the movie’s MPAA rating or lack of it, I’d put it at about “PG-11,” not so much for the F-bombs, but for the subject matter.