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.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl

Sweet and touching and funny.

Clever and cool and different.

Writer and director and actors.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl.

Can a movie about a teenage girl with leukemia be fun? Actually, yes.

First credit goes to the story’s source, Jesse Andrews, who wrote the novel and the screenplay. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, with a bit of Wes Anderson quirkiness, gives the film a look that’s full of visual surprises.

And there are the actors. The characters are high school seniors: Greg (Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Greg is just trying to make it through his senior year, keeping peace with all his school’s factions. His mom (Connie Britton) tells him that Rachel is ill and urges him to visit her, even though she is not a close friend. Over time, they become chums. Cooke’s strong performance could net awards at year’s end.

Greg and Earl make film parodies of movie classics. They’re the kind of silly thing teenagers would do. (The fact that they shoot these on film, not video, is interesting.) They don’t freely share the films they make, although Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) is a fan. As the boys become closer to Rachel, she also gets to see the films.

Among notable supporting performers is Molly Shannon as Rachel’s wine gulping, flirty mom. Jon Bernthal as favorite teacher Mr. McCarthy provides Greg and Earl with a safe place to eat lunch and useful life lessons.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl could’ve fallen into the “too cute” category of movies whose directors want to show off what they learned in film school. Yes, there are some goofy angles and uncomfortable two-shots that direct attention from what’s on the screen to the guy behind the camera. But those long static shots of Greg and Rachel talking are effective, if slightly tedious.

It has been a few years since I was a high school senior but I recognized many of the characters among the student population. The uncomfortable feeling one has around age 18 is depicted well in MAEATDG.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl will be embraced by teens and young adults, but is a movie older adults can enjoy, too. Nice story, entertainingly told.

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie is a pure delight! Colorful, clever and FUNNY! With a memorable song you might find yourself humming on your way home. And a story that springs from the dilemma that many Lego users face: do I follow the instructions or do I make my own creations?

The Lego Movie is my first “must see” film of 2014. Even if you’re a not a fan of silly stuff, you need to check it out for the visuals. Even if you never played with Legos or never had kids who played with Legos, the Lego movie will entertain you.

Emmet (Chris Pratt of TV’s Parks and Recreation) is an everyman Lego guy. But thanks to a series of unexpected events, he goes on a trip that’s almost as mindbending as Alice’s journey to Wonderland.

Emmet, through no effort of his own, is the chosen one, charged with derailing the plans of President Business (Will Ferrell) to glue everything in the universe together with something called “The Kragle.”

Along the way he meets a bizarre cast of Legos: a girl named WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), Vitrivius (Morgan Freeman), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Lego pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman).

Other Lego characters seen briefly are Abe Lincoln (Will Forte), Lando Calrissian (Billy D. Williams), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colby Smulders) and Superman (Channing Tatum) among many others.

The various Lego universes seen in the film are universally spectacular. And The Lego Movie‘s coda (whose content will not be revealed here) is sweet and touching.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller shared directing and screenplay duties. The soundtrack is by Mark Mothersbaugh, best known as a founding member of DEVO, but also known for doing music for the Rugrats TV show.

\My first thought when walking out of the theater was: “I want to see it again!” And I will! Soon!





In A World

Make way for a new showbiz triple threat! Lake Bell wrote and directed In A World and stars as the film’s central character Carol Solomon. The film is a romantic comedy, a family comedy and a workplace comedy.

Lake Bell’s is not a household name, but she has worked as an actor for years. I interviewed her for radio a decade ago when she was on a short-lived TV show called Miss Match. Now she adds feature film director and writer to her resume and I look forward to seeing what she delivers in the future. (She has also received great exposure this month with a nude cover shot for New York magazine.)

Carol Solomon is a voice coach who wants to make it big as an L.A. voice over talent, just like her father Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed) has done. His voce is anything but sotto—he has killer pipes and gets lots of work narrating movie trailers. Sam designates fellow voice talent Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) as the heir apparent to the real life announcer Don LaFontaine (noted for trailer scripts that begin with the words “In a world…”)

Sam tosses Carol out of his place because his girlfriend is moving in. Carol crashes with her sister Dani (Michela Watkins) and eventually causes her sister and her boyfriend Moe (Rob Corddry) to bust up. Meanwhile, Carol is in competition with Gustav for the plum gig of narrating the trailers for a new movie “quadrilogy.” When Gustav and Carol hook up, he doesn’t know (a) that she’s a voice talent and (b) her friend Sam’s daughter.

In A World is not gut busting funny, but it has its moments. I overheard a fellow critic call it “sitcomy.” In a way, the movie does recall elements of media-related workplace sitcoms (The Mary Tyler Moore Show and WKRP in Cincinnati come to mind) with its lineup of likeable second bananas and oddball tertiary characters. Plus plot points that circle back to earlier setups.

The cast also includes Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro as recording studio personnel. Eva Longoria cameos as herself, doing ADR dubbing. Geena Davis appears as a movie studio head. (The formerly glamorous Davis also serves as a sad example of bad plastic surgery.)

In A World is rated R, mainly for language. This is a movie for grownups that is nicely paced and thoroughly entertaining. It clocks in at 93 minutes.

Oddly, the trailer for In A World, is one of those that gives away many of the movie’s best lines. Skip the trailer, but see this movie about trailers. As has been written in bad commercial copy read by voice talents for decades, “You’ll be glad you did!”

The Kings of Summer

The Kings of Summer is a good movie with one problem: Its R rating. I know younger teens who would love this movie, but who cannot legally see it.

And the R rating is totally unnecessary. Yes, some of Nick Offerman’s profane comments are hilarious. And, yes, unsupervised 15-year-old kids may be likely to drink beer. But The Kings of Summer, a light comedy, should’ve been tailored to be PG-13.

In TKOS, two 15-year-old buddies and their weird acquaintance run off into the woods and build a decent little shelter. They stay there for several weeks, enjoying their solitude but, particularly, the absence of their parents. Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Chesterfield’s own Gabriel Basso) and Biaggio (Moises Arias) have a good thing going—until they invite some of their friends over.

Every person, around age 14 or 15, begins to resent/shun/despise his or her parents. I did it. My brother did it. Each of my three kids did it. You probably did it, even if you can’t remember. In most cases, it’s not personal, it’s just part of growing up. In the cases of Joe and Patrick though, maybe it is personal.

Offerman (of TV’s Parks and Recreation) is Joe’s widowed dad, a sad and bitter man, with a disarming smugness about him. Patrick’s sincere, but overbearing, parents are played by Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson. Biaggio’s parents are not seen, although his dad is heard in a brief, but funny, sequence near the film’s end.

The three Kings are talented young actors who each have big futures ahead. Robinson and Basso are nice looking young men. Arias has an Eastern European ethnic look and great facial takes that could lead to successful broad comedy roles.

The Kings of Summer calls to mind several films about young people dealing with adolescence, including Moonrise Kingdom, Stand By Me and Breaking Away. All of us who grew up near the woods and fantasized about building a tree house or cabin getaway with dad’s tools and scrap lumber from nearby construction sites can appreciate what these three characters actually pull off here.

Too bad TKOS is rated R and most teens can’t see it without their own smug, doting parents in tow. Maybe they could sneak in from somewhere else in the Cineplex? Maybe!