A Walk in the Woods

Have you read any of the humorous travel books by Bill Bryson ("Notes From a Small Island" and "I'm a Stranger Here Myself")? In this one, when he "hikes the Appalachian Trail," he really DOES hike the Appalachian Trail (apologies to former South Carolina Governor Sanford). Yup. It's a "Road Trip" comedy where we watch an ill-matched duo try to cope with the hazards and inconveniences of being on the road together.

Director Ken Kwapis ("The Office" and "He's Just Not That Into You"), working with a screenplay based on Bryson's book, centers his movie on the ex-pat writer who has moved back home with his English family. This setup delivers a witty, satisfying, R-rated (language) dramedy for people of a certain age. For me, it generates a whole new respect for authentic actors who resist the siren song of plastic surgery; it's nice to see real people on screen.

We appreciate:
  • Robert Redford ("All is Lost") Bill Bryson has returned to the U.S. after almost two decades in Europe. Watch his tongue-tied reaction to that rude talk-show host! Confronted by signs of aging (ailing friends, funerals, doctor visits), he longs for a new adventure, so he decides to hike the celebrated Appalachian Trail, which passes near his home town. He can't find any friends who share his enthusiasm.
  • Emma Thompson ("Saving Mr. Banks") Catherine is adamantly opposed to her husband's idea. Her reasons include his age, some well-publicized bear attacks, potential injuries...the list goes on and on. Ultimately he goes, so she says, "Try not to die!"
  • Nick Nolte ("Warrior") Hard-drinking alcoholic Stephan Katz calls because he heard of Bill's plan through a mutual friend (Katz had NOT been invited). They had been close friends years ago, but had a serious falling out.
  • Kristen Schaal (Lots of TV and voice work) Non-stop gasbag Mary Ellen is an unwelcome intruder. She provides our hapless duo with their first common goal: Ditch her!
  • Mary Steenburgen ("Last Vegas") Jeannie is the proprietor of a family-owned motel. Her lovely mother is a piece of work! I hope Bryson mailed Jeannie a check.
  • Susan McPhail ("Mississippi Grind") Beulah teaches Katz to keep his hands off a stranger's panties! Actually, her husband does...
The dialogue seems authentic: two guys reminiscing about adolescence, pranks, girls, college and other shared youthful experiences. By the time they became adults,  Bryson had a career, a wife, a family and is happily domesticated. Katz is still an unrepentant hedonist, a drunk who has seen more breasts than Bryson ever dreamed of! Bill says, "Books are television for smart people." Katz is convinced the trail is "uphill all the way to Maine."

Once we see samples of the gorgeous terrain, we understand why so many people want to hike this trail, yet only 10% actually complete it. Expect a few F-bombs and some adult humor (Katz is amused that Bill buries his own waste just off the trail, "In the WOODS?!?").

Here in Seattle, residents of a nearby retirement community were treated to this advance screening. It was perfect for them and they had a great time! Everyone will.
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Here is a preview:
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No Escape

Well, THAT was exhausting! We see an American family relocating to an Asian city on the Vietnam border. They no sooner arrive when we see a well-executed assassination and a shocking suicide immediately followed by a bloody coup d'etat which throws the city into turmoil. The crisis is magnified as our hero has no idea what is being said; he only reads and speaks English.

Written and directed by John Erick Dowdle with writing assistance by Drew Dowdle, both of whom are making a career out of scaring the piddle out of us ("As Above, So Below"), we could only wish for captions because so much of the dialogue is in frantic whispers as our terrified family tries to communicate in various hiding places. Hand-held camera work adds to the confusion and claustrophobia.

We watch:
  • Owen Wilson ("Midnight in Paris") Jack is moving his reluctant family after a business venture failed; he's an engineer who invented a valve that was "almost a big deal." He is trying to cheer them up with the promise of an exciting time and a bulldog puppy!
  • Lake Bell ("In a World...") Annie is hesitant to enter into this new adventure with her husband and daughters. She is horrified to see how thin is the veneer of civilization when the chips are down.
  • Pierce Brosnan ("The November Man") Hammond is the gabby, cheerful guy who steps in to provide local color. In my opinion, his explanation of how western countries exploit eastern ones is the only thing worth the price of admission.
  • Sterling Jerins ("And So It Goes") Lucy knows her life depends on her father but she lacks backbone.
  • Claire Geare ("Inception") Breeze is so frightened she wets herself ... to her everlasting shame.
This R-rated movie contains nail-biting suspense, children in peril, extreme brutality and corpses by the score. It has mild profanity (the family had a "Swear Jar" back in Texas), no sweaty bodies and only one explosion (although cannon fire deafens them temporarily). I became so exasperated with those whimpering females I wanted to shake them, but their flakiness helped the movie run a full 103 minutes. I recoiled from the clichés near the end, which is too bad because this well-directed movie has a very strong beginning and terrific performances.
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Take a look:
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Hitman: Agent 47

A woman searches for her father who abandoned her when she was a young girl. She joins forces with an assassin who saves her from another assassin. Now she has to figure out which assassin to trust while we, on the other hand, have to figure out if we care.

Directed by Aleksander Bach ("Stars") and based on a screenplay by Skip Woods ("Hitman" 2007) and Michael Finch ("The November Man"), this R-rated actioner takes place in sterile hi-tech surroundings and offers a complex arms-length plot which is neither involving nor entertaining. Knowing it was inspired by a video game makes this much more understandable.

The award-winning cast:
  • Hannah Ware ("Betrayal") Katia van Dees is our heroine, frantic to find her scientist father before she is assassinated. She is confused and unhappy.
  • Zachary Quinto ("Star Trek" he's the new Spock) John Smith is the assassin who saves our heroine from the assassin. He has been equipped with subcutaneous body armor (our screening audience snickered) and is virtually indestructible.
  • Rupert Friend ("Homeland") Agent 47 is an assassin who has known our heroine all her life; he saves her from that other assassin. He is ambidextrous, so he fires guns with both hands simultaneously.
  • Ciarán Hinds ("Rome") is her father, the scientist who developed these semi-robotic creations who could become a formidable army if his technology fell into the wrong hands,.
By actual count, there are six (6!) "Hitman" movies so far, but the one who inspired this sequel is the 2007 version with Timothy Olyphant. We aren't sure if even the appealing presence of Mr. O. could have saved this one. Probably not.... Screenwriters take delight in inventing newer, more gruesome instruments of torture. I do NOT take delight from them.

Please note, I said "award-winning cast" and it's true: Every actor in this cast has done far better work in far better projects. This is an R-rated waste of time buried in lots of Computer Generated Imaging, gunfire, fisticuffs, vehicular mayhem and blowie uppie stuff, with surprisingly little profanity and no sweaty bodies. I doubt if you'll care whether or not this has a happy ending.
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Here is the preview:
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The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

This stellar cast really caught my eye! Here is a trio which easily delivers a tongue-in-cheek script for a PG-13 audience, most of whom have never seen the original TV show. All three actors are beautiful to look at; the script delivers nicely nuanced sexual tension; we enjoy witty repartee with nary an F-bomb; we gawk at wonderful locations; the Cold War is evoked with music, clothing, cars and spies. There is plenty of action which features gunfire, speed boats, motorcycles, a dune buggy, various trucks...and just a bit of highly satisfying blowie uppie stuff. Oh! And watch the stunt driving!

Directed and co-written (with six other collaborators) by Guy Ritchie ("Sherlock Holmes") this reboot of the classic television series has us laughing from the first high-energy scene that opens the movie, to the final one which I won't describe.

Here is that eye-catching cast:
  • Henry Cavill ("Man of Steel" and "Immortals") CIA agent Napoleon Solo is working for the CIA to avoid a prison sentence. He has to work with a Russian operative to find and confiscate an illegal nuclear bomb. This actor is British playing American.
  • Armie Hammer ("The Lone Ranger" and "The Social Network" where he plays twins!) KGB operative Illya Kuryakin has anger issues and trouble with impulse control. His job is to secure the bomb before that despised American. This actor is American playing Russian.
  • Alicia Vikander ("A Royal Affair" and "Anna Karenina") Gaby Teller is supposed to intercept her German father who defected to the Americans after WWII, but may have helped a rogue organi- zation build that bomb. She is Swedish playing German in English.
  • Hugh Grant ("About a Boy" and "Bridget Jones") Waverly seems to call the shots. Really?
  • Elizabeth Debicki ("The Great Gatsby") Victoria Vinciguerra brings glamor to the Cold War. This Paris-born actress was raised in Australia and is playing ...maybe Italian?
  • Andrew Jack ("Sherlock Holmes" and "The Lord of the Rings") is the brilliant dialect coach who worked with our stars and made them sound authentic.
As we exited the theater we agreed that this delightful outing should become a series. The four principals are perfectly cast, they play comedy with beautifully understated delivery, and it is a pleasure to spend time with them. Let's watch for them again; cross your fingers! (I'm waiting for Amazon to list this one so I can order my DVD.)
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Take a look:
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Shaun the Sheep Movie

Claymation studio Aardman ("Wallace & Gromit") has created an award-winning PG-rated tale of a busybody sheep who must fix a problem he has created. These characters are based on a long-running TV series in the UK. We are charmed by mornings at the farm: a montage of activities that starts with a rooster crowing and ends with the farmer finally emerging from his house. There are many funny steps in between.

Our hero is inspired by an ad on a bus; he decides to think outside the box and break up the morning routine. As a result he gets The Farmer in big, big trouble. Now he and his stalwart sidekick, the sheepdog Bitzer, have to get their amnesiac shepherd and his flock out of that dangerous city and safely back home. By the way, the entire movie is done with NO dialogue but not one child in the screening audience missed it.

Writer/director Mark Burton ("Madagascar") and writer/director Richard Starzak have used the voices of:
  • John Sparkes ("Peppa Pig") The Farmer loves his animals but through some mischief by Shaun, lands in the big city with amnesia. At least he remembers how to use a clippers: he has sheared many a sheep.
  • Jason Fletcher ("Gigglebiz") When our hero Shaun lands in the big city animal shelter, we watch all the creatures try to appeal to visitors in hopes they will be adopted. This scene contains many adult movie references to jails that made the parents laugh but went over the heads of the little 'uns.
  • John Sparkes ("Calendar Girls") Bitzer is the epitome of the hard-working sheep dog. I loved his morning routine where he is seen walking out of the yard clutching a roll of toilet paper with a newspaper under his arm. Like Shaun, he is determined to get The Farmer back home where he belongs. Yes, Sparkes voices two characters.
  • Omid Djalili ("Moonfleet") is Trumper, the Animal Containment Officer who we come to realize will stop at nothing to recapture the fugitive Shaun.
As you can see by the credits, this cast and crew are from children's television in the UK. They even offer an odd musical interlude. My major concern was that too much of the movie was over the heads of the children; in fact about two-thirds of the way through, a little voice in the audience piped up, "Is it going to get better again?" About then, the final (lengthy) chase scene began and after that, no child had a dull moment. Whew!
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Take a look at a trailer:
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Ricki and the Flash

This time Meryl Streep is a rocker. We've seen her as a devastated mother ("Sophie's Choice"), an action hero ("River Wild"), a country singer ("A Prairie Home Companion"), the other woman ("It's Complicated"), a fashion doyenne ("The Devil Wears Prada"), Julia Child ("Julie and Julia"), an aging hippie ("Mamma Mia!"), and a drug addict ("August, Osage County"), among many others. She sang her way through college, so this casting is no accident, although she DID have to learn to play guitar.

Written by Diablo Cody ("Juno") and directed by Jonathan Demme ("Neil Young: Heart of Gold"), this capable duo brings our screening audience a PG-13 movie about a family that is conflicted, to say the least. My major problem is, I only LIKE half of them, the others are self-centered, spoiled, inconsiderate and rude.

They include:
  • Meryl Streep ("Into the Woods") is Ricki, a wannabe rock star who was never very maternal. She walked out on her husband and three children 15 years ago to pursue her dream of stardom; her family's resentment still simmers. She toils away as a supermarket checker during the day and plays in a small bar's house band at night. She is oblivious to the pain she causes. She thinks "ALS" is short for Alzheimer's.
  • Kevin Kline ("De-Lovely") Her former husband Pete has always kept things on an even keel, raising their children with the capable help of a lovely second wife.
  • Audra McDonald (Lots of TV) Maureen has willingly embraced motherhood and cared for those three children. She is smart enough to know the issues involved, but is kind enough to try to minimize them.
  • Mamie Gummer ("The Good Wife") is their daughter Julie (Gummer is Streep's second child). Julie wants her husband back...period. She is inconsolable and furious...but you can see her echoing her mother's behavior and mannerisms.
  • Sebastian Stan ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier") is their son Joshua. He's getting married but his mom Ricki is not invited to the wedding. He is the most generous and understanding of her three children. I LOVED the choreography in his wedding dance.
  • Rick Springfield (Lots of TV) Greg is Ricki's faithful band mate. Springfield is a musician, so this is the perfect role to show us his stuff, but his character is so likable, I almost forgot his musical abilities. Greg says it's not your kids' job to love you, but it's your job to love your kids. I agree.
If there are any lessons to be learned, I guess I came away with the understanding that it's therapeutic to have your troubled daughter skip her counseling session, get her hair styled, and smoke dope with her parents. Hmmm....
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See what Streep can do:
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Fantastic Four

It's been ten years, so Marvel Comics has decided that it's time for another reboot of this perpetual series. Now it's called a "re-imagining," so we leave everything we knew and approach this with an open mind although we recognize some familiar landmarks. We learn what event caused our team to be invested with their unusual skills.

Life on Earth as we know it, is at risk and who better to save us? We see a high-echelon group of powers-that-be sit down to assess cost versus benefit, when a professor offers a group of his high-achieving students as our next best hope to develop inter-dimensional travel and find new energy sources as a result (don't ask!).

The cast:
  • Reg E. Cathey ("House of Cards") is Dr. Franklin Storm, who is convinced his brilliant students can solve this sticky problem.
  • Toby Kebbell ("Down of the Planet of the Apes") Victor von Doom/Doctor Doom is his disenchanted former student whom we first meet in self-imposed exile. He had been thisclose to solving the problem. He does NOT want to wear a lab coat!
  • Michael B. Jordan ("Fruitvale Station") Johnny Storm/The Human Torch is his son who is lured onto the team with an offer of a new car (he wrecked his father's). He is defiant but has his own skill set.
  • Kate Mara ("House of Cards") Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman is a charter member of this invincible quartet. She is Dr. Storm's adopted daughter from Ukraine.
  • Miles Teller ("Divergent") Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic brings a prodigy's unusual abilities to the table. He wants their team to beat NASA to the punch and travel in their invention before Government take over.
  • Jamie Bell ("Billy Elliot" 2000 and "Defiance" 2008) Our friend Ben Grimm/The Thing has kept his old job at the wrecking yard, but answers our hero's call for adventure.
  • Tim Blake Nelson ("Child of God") as soon as we see Dr. Allen's smarmy smile, we peg him for a double-crossing villain, although HE certainly doesn't see things that way. He just sees a group of scared kids who can be very valuable to the government.
Any shortcomings in this production I lay at the feet of writer/director Josh Trank. This is his first big-budget attempt and he will no doubt improve. I have seen these cast members in more demanding roles and they are highly capable. This is PG-13, so expect lots of blowie uppie stuff, unusual fisticuffs and Computer Generated Imaging, some mild profanity and no sweaty bodies. Have I left anything out?

In our screening audience, fans of Sci-Fi and CGI left the theater (sorta) happy.
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Here is one of the trailers:
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