Tuesday, September 1, 2015

This 'Walk,' hobbled by low-grade material

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte search for laughs on the Appalachian trail.

One of them is a trim 79-year-old whose still-spry voice and white teeth don't seem to have aged at the same pace as his weathered face. The other is a 74-year-old who seems to have aged to the point where his face and body stand as a harsh rebuke to every trace of youthful grace.

I'm talking about Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, the unlikely pair of actors who try out their version of a Grumpy Old Men routine in A Walk on the Woods, a comedy in which an aging travel writer decides to take a re-invigorating 2,118 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail.

When Redford's Bill Bryson can't find a partner to join his adventure, he settles for the company of Nolte's Steve Katz, an alcoholic who only recently put aside the bottle. As young revelers, Bryson and Katz once traveled in Europe together.

The duo long-ago parted company. Katz continued his dissolute life in Iowa. Bryson stayed in England where he met and married a nurse (Emma Thompson). The couple now lives in New Hampshire, where Bryson tries to avoid funerals, treats the world with cynical indifference and occasionally writes a forward for someone else's book.

At one point, Bryson's wife suggests that he talk to people.

Bryson says he doesn't like to talk to people, an unlikely trait for a supposedly great travel writer and an indication of missteps to come.

Under the uninspired direction of Ken Kwapis (He's Just Not Into You and License to Wed), Walk in the Woods turns into a broadly conceived comedy that wanders a long way from the kind of chemistry generated by Redford and Newman in movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1968) and The Sting (1973).

I can't imagine what Walk in the Woods would have been had Newman lived long enough to play opposite Redford again, and I'm glad that I can't. I really don't want to think about it.

Beyond that, I'm a little surprised that Redford, who served as one of the movie's producers, was attracted to material that required him to cover himself with mud, fall into a rushing stream and tumble over a cliff that brings him and his slovenly partner to the brink of a death defying leap which -- unlike Butch Cassidy and Sundance -- Bryson and Katz wisely avoid.

Even though Nolte's voice has devolved into a cross between a garbage compactor and a growl and Redford's chops don't necessarily stretch toward the movie's occasional displays of physical comedy, both actors know how to handled themselves on screen. Still, they can't overcome a trail of second-rate material that -- like the Appalachian -- could stretch from Georgia to Maine.

The movie's more serious moments -- Bryson and Katz sharing thoughts on what their lives have meant -- feel worn out. Every now and again, Bryson stops the story in its tracks to deliver a small lecture on the fate of disappearing varieties of trees or the staggering multiplicity of stars in the heavens.

Aside from a few brief appearances by other actors, A Walk in the Woods remains a two-hander. Kristen Schaal plays a female hiker whose presence grates on Bryson and Katz's nerves, and ours, too. Mary Steenburgen brings her luminous smile to the role of a motel owner who flirts with Bryson.

A jokey bit about an overweight woman who becomes the object of Katz's lascivious desires takes on an ill-fitting antic quality.

At times, A Walk in the Woods seems like a goofy east coast version of Wild, the movie in which Reese Witherspoon played a woman who took a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

In some respects, A Walk in the Woods could have taken its title by going in the opposite direction from Wild. This one is harmless, and that's a shame for Redford and Nolte, both of whom are capable of better.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A major helping of Greta Gerwig

Mistress America , a movie of intermittent amusements.

In Mistress America, Greta Gerwig draws on all her power to play a scattered, funny and wildly ambitious New Yorker. As a young woman seeking a place for herself in a trend-crazed world, Gerwig's Brooke creates a tornadic whirl around everything she does.

Spend five minutes with Brooke, and she'll ramble on about possible TV shows she wants to produce (a reality show called Mistress America being one of them), new apps she plans to invent and scads of other imagined endeavors that she hopes will secure her niche in a fluid economy.

Here's the thing, though: We get Brooke early, and there's not much left for us to learn about her in this Noah Baumbach-directed comedy. Baumbach, you'll recall, previously worked with Gerwig on Frances Ha.

Although she's the movie's dominant force, Gerwig's Brooke is not its main character. That job falls to Lola Kirke's Tracy, a college freshman who aspires to be a writer. Because Tracy's mother (Kathryn Erbe) is engaged to Brooke's father, she encourages Tracy to call her soon-to-be step sister.

Driven by an inability to connect with her peers, Tracy contacts Brooke. Instantly, she's drawn into the vortex her future step-sister creates: parties punctuated by a blur of activities and a frenzied stream of ideas.

When Brooke's wealthy boyfriend decides not to fund the restaurant Brooke wants to open, she's forced to ask former boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) to help her with money. That's no slam-dunk because Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), Dylan's shrill wife, hates Brooke.

Joining Brooke on her trip to Dylan's upscale Connecticut home are one of Tracy's student friends (a droopy Matthew Shear) and his improbably jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

All of these characters and a stray from Mamie-Claire's book group gather for a scene in which Baumbach makes a major misstep: He tries his hand at farce.

Stocked with crisscrossing dialogue and rat-a-tat delivery, the movie's big farcical scene never achieves the level of urbanity and wit required to make it fly. Baumbach's attempt at screwball comedy mostly falls flat.

Good for a few chuckles and savvy about the way certain people are able quickly to create a seductive sense of intimacy, Mistress America winds up feeling like awfully thin gruel, a comedy that struck me as more interested in letting us know it's smart than in making us laugh.

Two from the indie side of things

Digging for Fire shouldn't work, but it does
An unusual mixture of obsession and informality give Digging for Fire, a new movie from director Joe Swanberg, its feeling of freshness. Tim and Lee (Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt) are house sitting for one of Lee's wealthy clients. She teaches yoga; he's a public school teacher. Along with their young son, Tim and Lee are set to enjoy a week of unaccustomed luxury. Signs of possible tension emerge. Lee wants to accept money from her parents (Sam Elliott and Judith Light) to send their son to an expensive pre-school. A mixture of pride and a commitment to public education keep Tim from agreeing. When Lee leaves to spend a weekend with her parents, Tim is joined by friends (Mike Birbiglia, Sam Rockwell and Chris Messina), as well as by a couple of women who tag along. Tim already has been consumed by a strange task: Having found a revolver and a human bone in the backyard of this expensive home, he decides to dig for more. Eventually, he's joined in this effort by Max (Brie Larson), one of the women who attended the impromptu party and returned the next day to find her purse. Swanberg quietly introduces the real issue: the state of Tim and Lee's marriage. While Tim's flirting with Max, Lee has her own tempting encounter with a ruggedly handsome man (Orlando Bloom) she meets in a bar. I won't say more, but I will advise you to view Tim's digging more as a metaphor than plot point. By the end you'll realize that Swanberg has taken an unusual and sometimes comic look at the fragility of marriage -- and also the feeling of safety it can provide.

Z for Zachariah: quiet tension in a post-apocalyptic world

The actors in Z for Zachariah (Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie) are all capable of keeping the movie's sexual tension close to the surface. Good thing, too, because Z for Zachariah throws them into a post-apocalyptic world in which they play the only survivors. Robbie's Ann Burden lives in an idyllic valley that has survived the nuclear holocaust that ravaged the rest of the world. Once Ejiofor's character, an engineer by trade, finds his way into the valley, director Craig Zoebel sets up a dynamic in which two characters who probably never would have met under any other circumstance are forced to work out the dynamics of their relationship. This process is disrupted when another man, Pine's Caleb turns up. Like Ann, Caleb professes to be a man of faith. Ejiofor's John focuses on practical matters with an eye on the possibly of re-starting the human race with Ann. The symbolism gets heavy when John proposes tearing down a chapel that Tracy's father built so that he can use the wood to build a waterwheel for harnessing electricity. Zoebel's naturalism keeps the proceedings from feeling overly allegorical, but the deliberately paced Z For Zachariah never quite attains the primal force the material demands.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Senseless, relentless and cruel

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell play a mom and dad fleeing Asian rebels who are portrayed as savages.
No Escape, a rank helping of violence, makes the fate of one American family the focal point of attention in an unnamed Asian country that's consumed by rebellious street violence. Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, actors who usually work in comedies, are miscast as a Mom and Dad who wind up on the run with their two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare). Pierce Brosnan turns up as a disheveled bum who's more than he seems. Brosnan's character sounds the movie's excuse for a theme (western money interests have screwed the Third World) and performs a couple of last-minute rescues. Guess it helps to have played Bond. Absent any significant thematic thrust, the movie comes off as another example of fear-mongering in which decent Americans are threatened by hostile, uncivilized thugs. Director John Erick Dowdle, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Drew, serves up lots of punishing violence and one vertiginous sequence in which Wilson's character tosses his daughters over a chasm between two tall buildings in order to save them. Dowdle works the movie's family over, but No Escape increasingly feels like an exercise in purposeless cruelty. Early in the movie, Owen's Jack Dwyer, who has come to the country as a mid-level businessman, leaves his wife and kids at the hotel where they're being housed. He wanders the city's market in search of a newspaper. Judging by how little Jack seems to know about the country he's in, you may wonder whether he's ever bothered to read one.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

When everything is over-the-top

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart team in a cartoonish movie that revels in its violence.

Set in a West Virginia backwater, American Ultra is a comic-book movie that has the distinction of not being based on a comic book. Silly, violent and unashamedly over-the-top, American Ultra makes for a late-summer oddity -- fun but not too much.

In trying to enter cult-movie territory, director Nima Nourizadeh manages a neat trick: He casts Jesse Eisenberg in an action-oriented role in which he seems less agitated than he did in such recent movies as The End of the Tour. (If you haven't seen End of the Tour, it's worth catching Eisenberg as a writer who sweats his way through interviews with novelist David Foster Wallace.)

Here, Eisenberg plays Mike, a neurotic underachiever with a job at a convenience store. Mike's so prone to bouts of anxiety that he can't even get on a plane for a trip to Hawaii with his live-in girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). Mike had planned to propose on the beach.

As it turns out, Mike is no mere pot-smoking slacker with anxiety issues. He's been programmed by the CIA as a sleeper agent. With his memory wiped clean, Mike has no idea that he's a CIA "asset" in waiting.

Mike surprises himself with sudden bursts of butt-kicking physicality after he's activated by a sympathetic CIA agent (Connie Britton) who wants to keep him from getting killed.

Mike isn't being pursued by a foreign enemy, but by a newly appointed CIA boss (Topher Grace).

Caught in a bureaucratic middle, Mike is part of a program that Grace's character opposed and which Britton's newly demoted character championed.

Working from a script by Max Landis (Chronicle), Nourizadeh spares no effort in demonstrating that he's making an entertainment in which violence frequently is given a comic spin. Dustpans become lethal weapons, for example.

American Ultra delights in refusing to take aim at a single target. Put another way, the movie is an eclectic hodgepodge. John Leguizamo shows up as a low-level criminal who sells illegal fireworks. For no particular reason, Leguizamo sounds as if he's auditioning for a role in Straight Outta Compton.

In keeping with a comic-book tone, Walter Goggins plays The Laugher, a CIA-programmed killer who breaks into laughter without provocation. He relentlessly pursues Mike.

Eisenberg and Stewart, who worked together in 2009's Adventureland, whip up some genuine romantic chemistry, even as the movie goes overboard trying to show just how clever it can be with its ample displays of violence.

Still, Eisenberg and Stewart are game to be battered and bruised, and when the animated closing credits roll, American Ultra confirms what we already knew: It's not to be taken seriously.

Hey, if we hadn't seen movies like this before (remember Kick-Ass?), American Ultra might have had more kick.

She's sexually aggressive at 15

Diary of a Teenage Girl takes a serio-comic look at a provocative subject.

The filmmaking is lively and creative. The central performance is ripe with the burgeoning sexuality of a 15-year-old, and there's little question that the movie evokes a loosey/goosey, mid-1970s moment when the line between adult and adolescent behavior got a little blurry.

That social observation may be the most cogent thing about The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a movie in which a teenager has a sexual relationship with her mother's 30something boyfriend.

Bel Powley's performance as young Minnie Goetz should elevate her status as a bold and daring actress, and director Mirelle Heller makes a provocative debut with a movie that leaves us to sort through its many issues.

Put another way, Diary is an engaging act of assertion, as brash as its main character and not necessarily any more perceptive.

We know a lot about what Minnie thinks because her tape-recorded confessions give the movie its on-going perspective. She's constantly narrating her life for us.

"I had sex today. Holy shit," says Minnie at the outset.

Minnie not only has sex on that day, but on many other days: Leaving hearts and flowers at the door, Heller emphasizes the physicality of female desire.

When I say that a movie includes a sexual relationship between a 15-year-old girl and her mother's adult boyfriend, I can almost feel knees jerking with outrage. I get that.

I felt some of that, as well. I took the story on the level it's offered while also remembering that Diary isn't just a story about sexual awakening; it's about a particular sexual awakening -- one in which the characters don't seem to care much about boundaries.

Based on a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, Diary seems to rely on environment to explain Minnie's unregulated behavior. It's not spelled out, but we know that she's seen plenty of adults whose behavior is no less regulated.

Minnie is alternately insecure and confident. She's also entirely unaware (maybe the movie is, as well) of the fact that her sexual choice might be an expression of anger toward her mother (Kristen Wiig).

Wing's Charlotte never has provided a stable environment for Minnie or her younger sister (Abby Wait).

Charlotte split with Minnie's stepfather (Christopher Meloni), smokes pot and, on occasion, snorts coke. She can't hold a job, and has taken up with the shiftless Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), a grown man who hasn't matured much beyond Minnie's age level.

Skarsgard's Monroe is the kind of guy who makes himself at home wherever he happens to land; he doesn't spend much time agonizing about his behavior. Maybe he thinks it's cool to be sexually open with Minnie.

For all that, The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn't one long squirmfest, and it's not shy about seeing Minnie as a seductress who wants to have lots of sex, some of it even with boys her own age.

Perhaps as a way to honor the movie's roots as a graphic novel, Heller includes animation -- sometimes showing us Minnie's fantasies.

Minnie not only discovers sexual pleasure, she learns that there's power in sex. At one point, she imagines herself as a giantess rumbling through San Francisco's streets, a sexual powerhouse.

Fair to say that at 15, Minnie, who's also an aspiring cartoonist, doesn't know how to control the forces she's unleashing.

I'm guessing that Heller makes an assumption about her audience: Perhaps she thinks that we already know that a sexual relationship between a 15-year-old and a man in his 30s is neither legally nor in any other way acceptable. She doesn't lecture us about it.

Instead, she takes us inside Minnie's world. She refuses to condemn anyone.

That's OK, but it would have helped if Heller had dug a bit deeper. Minnie's perspective gives the movie its personality, but it can't help but be a bit limited.

Powley, a British actress who's really in her early 20s, makes a willing co-conspirator for Heller. With her eyes popped wide open, Powley conveys Minnie's desire, bolstered by intermittent bursts of bravado.

In Powley and Heller's hands, Diary feel as alive as its young protagonist. And by the movie's end, it's clear that Heller has fashioned another coming-of-age story -- albeit one that brims with sex, talk about sex and nudity.

Diary of a Teenage Girl is an odd duck of a movie: Brave and cheeky, but not an inch removed from the sometimes wanton behavior of its characters. How you feel about that may well determine how you feel about the movie.

Returning home after the Holocaust

The German movie Phoenix is about trying to manage an unmanageable past.

Nelly Lenz survived Auschwitz, but was shot in the face sometime around the camp's liberation. With the rumble of war still echoing across the European landscape, Nelly returned to Berlin with a friend who had arranged for her to have reconstructive surgery.

In the hospital, a plastic surgeon asks Nelly whether she wants to pick a new face and by extension, a new identity. She insists that she wants to look exactly as she did before the war.

Obviously, any movie that begins like this -- as does the German movie Phoenix -- must invest every choice with symbolic meaning.

As an assimilated Jew prior to the war, does Nelly want to wipe the slate clean and start again? Will she cling to the past, even if it means denying how some of her German "friends" behaved during the war?

After her operation, Nelly -- played by Petzold regular Nina Hoss -- moves in with the friend (Nina Kunzendorf) who brought her to Berlin.

Kunzendorf's Lene suggests that the two leave Germany and move either to Haifa or Tel Aviv.

Nelly has another idea. She wants to find Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the German to whom she was married before the war. Nelly had been a club singer: Johnny played piano.

It doesn't take long for Nelly to locate Johnny, who (we're asked to believe) doesn't recognize her. True, Nelly doesn't look precisely the same as before her surgery, but you'd think Johnny, would be smart enough to catch on.

He doesn't. Instead, he thinks that this woman -- who reminds him of his wife -- might help him pull off a scam. He'll instruct her until she knows how to behave like the wife he presumes to be dead. He'll then use this imposter to collect the substantial inheritance to which Nelly's entitled. They'll split the money, he says.

That's a lot of story, but director Christian Petzold handles it with relative ease, perhaps assuming that in the post-war rubble of Berlin, it's entirely possible that Nelly would find Johnny working in a nightclub called The Phoenix, and that he wouldn't know who she is.

Buy into all of that, and you'll find a well-acted movie that showcases Hoss's work as a woman whose motives and understanding of her situation aren't fully formed until the movie's quietly powerful ending.

Hoss worked with Petzold on two previous movies ( Barbara and Yella), so it's no surprise that she skillfully convey's both Nelly's fragility and her determination.

Petzold devotes much of the movie to the ways in which Johnny tries to remake Nelly into the image of his wife without ever realizing that she actually is his wife.

At times, the movie almost seems as if it could have been a play, two characters mired in a game that raises deep questions about responsibility and guilt.

Petzold doesn't totally conquer the inherent unlikelihood of the movie's central conceit, but uses it to create a challenging portrait of post-war Germany.

He also benefits greatly from Hoss's performance as a woman who essentially has been eradicated from everything she knew -- and yet remains to look at the terrible aftermath.

A daredevil looks death in the eye

Daniel Junge's documentary tells the story of Evel Knievel.

I don't know what you think about Evel Knievel, whose daredevil stunts and showmanship made him a national celebrity during the 1970s. To be frank, I spend no time thinking about Knievel, his death-defying antics or his legacy. It must say something, then, that I found Daniel Junge's new documentary -- Being Evel -- entirely compelling. Working with new and old interviews and footage from ABC's Wide World of Sports, Junge (and editor Davis Coombe) assemble a documentary that's revealing, entertaining and likely to appeal to those who idolize Knievel, as well as those who find him a less than exemplary figure. Knievel, who died at the age of 69 in 2007, made his mark by leaping over lines of cars on his motorcycle. At one point, he even tried to launch a rocket-driven cycle over Idaho's Snake River Canyon. Junge tells us that Knievel's stunts can be viewed as a precursor to the thrill-crazed world of extreme sports. Knievel himself aptly describes some of the allure: "No one wants to see me die, but they don't want to miss it if I do." It's clear that Knievel understood the value of hype and promotion. Eventually, he tried to take his act in a different direction, trying (without success) to make an impact on the big screen. I'd totally forgotten that actor George Hamilton once played Knievel -- 1971's Evel Knievel -- a chapter Junge includes in a film that's as revved up as one of Knievel's bikes. No one can spend a life doing what Knievel did and not get hurt, but no amount of broken bones deterred his efforts to find new ways to put his life on the line. I can't say that I liked Knievel when the film was done, but I admit to watching his life unfold with a kind of bemused amazement. Knievel seems to mean it when he talks about having no fear, even if to some of us it may look as if he had no sense, either. Whatever you conclude about Knievel, it's clear that Junge has captured a telling piece of Americana -- not only about the man, but about those who were glued to TV sets to watch him.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

An acceptable 'Man from U.N.C.L.E.'

Director Guy Ritchie never quite finds the right buoyancy, but his revival of a'60s TV hit proves entertaining enough.

What's at stake in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., director Guy Ritchie's belated attempt to bring a '60s TV series to the big screen?

The end of the word; that kind of thing.

That's the nonchalantly delivered answer given by one the characters in a story about two reluctant partners -- an American CIA agent and a Soviet spy -- who must recover a nuclear bomb from fiends who want to control the world.

The year: 1963. The attitude? Shall we say, relaxed?

Ritchie -- of Sherlock Holmes fame -- takes an unusually low-key approach to spy material that, wisely, I think, has been kept in its original period rather than straining for a contemporary update.

Ritchie doles out the action sparingly in a movie in which '60s styles provide a substantial part of the pleasure. Credit on-the-nose work from the movie's set decorators and from costume and art directors who create a witty, nostalgia-laced environment.

Entertaining without finding quite the right buoyancy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. casts Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) as Napoleon Solo, a smooth-talking thief who's forced into the service of the CIA.

A blandly handsome Cavill would have done well to add a bit of twinkle to at least one of Solo's eyes.

Armie Hammer does better as Illya Kuryakin, the Russian KBG agent who's teamed with Solo in what amounts to an origins story about how the spy organization U.N.C.L.E. gets its start.

Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) plays an East German auto mechanic who's thrown into the mix. She proves more interesting than either of the male leads.

A subdued Hugh Grant has a small role as the head of U.N.C.L.E., a role played by Leo G. Carroll in the TV series, which ran from 1964-1968 and attained broadcast blockbuster status.

For the record Robert Vaughn portrayed Solo in the original; David McCallum played Illya.

A routine plot falls short of espionage greatness. Solo and Illya are assigned to find Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a German scientist who who has been captured by the movie's villains and forced to build a nuclear bomb.

Solo and Illya hope Vikander's Gaby, who happens to be Teller's daughter, will lead them to her father. The journey takes everyone to Rome.

Added to all this are a wealthy, stylish villainess (Elizabeth Debicki) and a former Nazi (Sylvester Groth), another obvious bad guy.

Groth anchors Ritchie's slyly comic treatment of an obviously serious torture situation, one of the movie's droller moments.

Should there be a sequel -- and the movie is set up for one -- Ritchie and company may work out some of the kinks, which include lighting a fire under Cavill.

Meanwhile, what arrives on screen qualifies as reasonable, mid-August entertainment that goes down easily, despite its problems.

Lavish and colorful, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also is a little less crazed than Ritchie's work in the frenetic Sherlock Holmes series. For me, that's a plus.