A Walk in the Woods (2015)

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Humorist Bill Bryson’s beloved travel guide about his experiences hiking the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, has been turned into a flat-footed farce featuring Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as his curmudgeonly companion, Stephen Katz. Who thought this was a good idea, exactly? Adapting the popular book might have made sense, but why recast the burly, middle-aged journalist as a lean, octogenarian pretty boy? Ironically, Nolte looks distinctly more like an older version of Bryson than Redford does, but presumably his star power wasn’t considered significant enough to carry the film. As for the translation itself, Bryson’s 1998 bestseller is whimsical and poignant and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also corny and obvious in a lot of places. For some reason, the filmmakers responsible for this big screen version, director Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You) and screenwriters William Holderman and Rick Kerb, have focused on the corny and obvious parts, blowing them up out of all proportion while simultaneously eliminating all subtleties and nuances from the original. Bear jokes, poop jokes, bear poop jokes—it’s an embarrassment for all concerned. Well, perhaps not for Emma Thompson, who plays Bryson’s dutiful wife Catherine and does the sensible thing by staying in New Hampshire. She’s a breath of fresh air in a travel odyssey that, given the greatness of its outdoors, should have featured almost nothing but. Instead, all we get is steaming lungfuls of something else.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Visit (2015)

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Grandparents are creepy—ask any kid. They smell funny, they move slowly, and in M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film The Visit, they might also harbor some deep dark secret, either squirreled away in their moldy, off-limits basement or holed up in the tool shed on the edge of their property.
     Deadly-annoying Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) get to spend a week with Nana and Pop Pop on their remote Pennsylvania farm and witness more than funny smells and slow movements; the oldies are played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie.
     Scorsese-wannabe Becca documents most of the sibs’ sinister stay in a film she’s making, so The Visit plays like a found-footage thriller with worried faces thrust into the lens at every opportunity. Tyler is a smart alec and “rapper”; consequently the lispy 14-year-old is not in the least bit endearing. The film provides some solid scares, mostly courtesy Dunagan, who acts genuinely strangely throughout, but her character is too often required to take a backseat to her precocious grandkids. More’s the pity.
     Shyamalan could really use a hit.  After scoring big with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, the second biggest box-office champ of that year behind one of those Star Wars prequel things, his critical reception charted a shockingly consistent downward trend—an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for The Sixth Sense (1999), 68% for Unbreakable (2000), 74% for Signs (2002), 43% for The Village (2004), 24% for Lady in the Water (2006), 17% for The Happening (2007), 6% for The Last Airbender (2010). Nine years into the new millennium he had become a veritable pariah with a dwindling fanbase (for specifics, see Michael Bamberger’s 2006 expose, The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale).
     Personally I’ve never understood the hate. I was one of fifty-odd people who actually liked the fairy tale in question (Lady in the Water), and while The Last Airbender was bad, it wasn’t that bad. I mean, it wasn’t Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (0%) bad. 2010’s Devil (52%) was a rare example of a Shyamalan film that polarized audiences. It offered an intriguing premise—five strangers trapped in an elevator slowly realize one of them is the title character—but didn’t do a whole lot with it. The Visit might not be on a par with the director’s most satisfying works, but it provides a huge sigh of relief to any remaining fans after his last film, 2013’s Will Smith & Son vanity project, After Earth (11%). And at time of writing, The Visit‘s “Tomatometer” speaks for itself: 63%. Maybe he’s coming out of his long sophomore slump.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The End of the Tour (2015)

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“You don’t crack open a thousand-page book because you heard the author was a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant, because you want him to be brilliant.” —David Lipsky, Rolling Stone
     I tried tackling David Foster Wallace’s mammoth Infinite Jest a couple of years ago while reading through Time’s 100 best English-language novels published since 1923. Infinite Jest was one of about a dozen titles I gave up on. Not because of its intimidating length (1,079 pages including 388 endnotes) or weight (approx. 3.2 pounds) or because I heard the author was a “regular guy” (I hadn’t). I gave up because I found its protagonist, Hal Incandenza, so unappealing I couldn’t imagine spending that many hours in his company.
     Which brings us, naturally enough, to The End of the Tour, director James Ponsoldt’s involving dramatization of Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky’s five-day book tour interview with Wallace shortly after Infinite Jest’s publication in 1996. I had, however, heard that Wallace’s colossal and complex dystopian work was autobiographical in nature and that, following the interview (which was never published in its original form), the two Davids wound up hating each other. Would I, therefore, end up hating Wallace too, essentially giving up on the film before its second act?
     Funny man Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, TV’s How I Met Your Mother) might at first seem like an odd choice to play Wallace, but his performance is remarkably self assured. Jesse Eisenberg is equally well cast as Lipsky, sporting all those typically anxious affectations and nervous tics we’ve come to expect from the star of The Social Network. The End of the Tour is based on Lipsky’s best-selling memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, adapted by David Marguiles, and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s screenplay is honest and insightful and, much like its source material, “crushingly poignant” (NPR’s Michael Schaub on Lipsky’s book).
     What surprised me the most about Lipsky’s version was the mutual respect the two writers appeared to share while struggling to understand each other, a recognition that, at times, bordered on friendship, even as Lipsky leaves Wallace’s snowbound Bloomington, Illinois rancher for the final time (the two would never cross paths again—Wallace committed suicide in 2008). While brief, their on-screen relationship is often intense, with Lipsky’s probing questions—especially about a rumored heroin addiction—touching some hidden nerves. The biggest faux pas the Rolling Stone reporter seems to make is hitting on Wallace’s former girlfriend (at least according to Wallace; Lipsky claims he was simply getting her contact information to later corroborate facts) and it threatens to upset their camaraderie permanently. Lipsky’s Wallace might purport to be just an average Joe, but he reacts poorly whenever someone dares to share his spotlight. Call it paranoia. Lipsky admits he wanted what Wallace already had—fame, adoring fans, a Time magazine cover. He claims Wallace just wanted more.
     I didn’t hate the David Foster Wallace portrayed in The End of the Tour. I only wish I had more confidence that Lipsky’s interpretation served both parties equally. I found the Wallace in the film interesting and articulate, guarded at times yet vulnerable at others, and I liked that he liked his dogs, two daft black labs that would come snuffling around Lipsky first thing in the morning, interrupting his sleep. “But what’s with the bandana?”


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Walk (2015)

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On the morning of August 7, 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked across a cable strung between the north and south towers of the under-construction, but nearly-completed World Trade Center. His death-defying feat was immortalized 29 years later in an excellent children’s picture book by Mordicai Gerstein entitled The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, and later still in the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, Cast Away) now brings Petit’s incredible story back to the screen, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, Looper, Don Jon) as the Gallic daredevil who wowed Manhattanites—and the world—with his illegal antics a quarter of a mile above the ground. The film’s initial hippie whimsy and overexuberant palette, fourth-wall narrated by a convincingly-accented Gordon-Levitt hanging from the Statue of Liberty’s torch, soon give way to “le coup” itself. And it’s a fascinating and sweaty-palmed account of how Petit and his accomplices staged this extraordinary exploit—casing the joint, smuggling equipment onto the upper floors, stringing the cable, and the insane balancing act itself, as Petit steps out into nothingness with only a custom-made 8-meter pole for company. The film’s crowning achievement, of course, is its stunning recreation of the iconic skyscrapers using advanced digital technology. Their presence is nothing less than chilling, whether dominating the New York City skyline in long shot or detailed from within, atop, or below. The Walk may keep Petit in focus, but it’s the Twin Towers that loom large in Zemeckis’s powerful paean.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Infinitely Polar Bear (2015)

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We all know if you want an award, do a disease. “And the winner is…” Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (AIDS), Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (autism/savant syndrome), Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (cerebral palsy), Julianne Moore in Still Alice (early-onset Alzheimer’s), Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas (alcoholism). Academy voters smiled less kindly on Mark Ruffalo’s performance in Infinitely Polar Bear (manic-depressive bipolar disorder), although the versatile actor did pick up a Golden Globe nomination (apparently Matt Damon’s performance in The Martian was way funnier). Ruffalo’s Cameron Stuart is infinitely the least of the aforementioned turns, and the debut film from Maya Forbes is anything but high profile, end of-year Oscar bait—it’s a small, quiet contemplation of mental illness based on a true story. The ungracious among us might unduly dismiss Ruffalo’s contributions to the film as little more than a squint and a prop, a cigarette forever dangling out the corner of his mouth, but he’s better than that. While his blue-blood Boston accent comes and goes as often as his mood swings, we do get a strong sense of how difficult it is to live with someone who’s singularly focused one minute, zoned out the next. Ruffalo tries hard to avoid over-embellishing the former or understating the latter and while not always successful, his work ethic is commendable. Unfortunately, writer/director Forbes’s earnest resolve to demystify Cam’s disorder prevents her film from establishing a satisfying story arc and the narrative suffers. Zoe Saldana, as the wife who leaves her children in the questionably-capable hands of Ruffalo’s post-breakdown father in order to further her education in the city, is adequate, as are the young actors who play the two girls (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide). But as Ruffalo can attest, diseases-of-the-week and adequate don’t win statuettes.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Maggie (2015)

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In Maggie, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daughter (played by Abigail Breslin) has contracted a deadly zombie virus and Arnie knows he will eventually have to put her out of her misery (with a shotgun) rather than take her to quarantine and have someone else do it (with a drug). He wants to avoid someone else doing it at all costs. Truth be told, he wants to avoid doing it himself, but he knows it’s only a matter of time. Law enforcement officials visit his farm often and say “It’s time, Wade,” but Wade (Schwarzenegger) disagrees, even though Maggie (Breslin) is getting paler by the minute, her eyes getting glassier, the veins under her skin turning black. How long can Arnold avoid doing what needs to be done, for Maggie, for the town? Well, Henry Hobson’s film clocks in at around ninety-five minutes, so that’s pretty much your answer—ninety-five minutes of avoiding the inevitable. The beefy Austrian drives around in his pick-up watching the crops burn with a pensive look on his face. It takes his mind off things, temporarily, until Abigail starts to smell like meat (one of the tell-tale signs the disease is nearing its zenith). “Do you smell that?” Maggie asks her stepmom, played by Joely Richardson. “No.” “Are you sure? It smells like food.” “It’s probably your father cooking up something he shouldn’t have.” Wade has already dispatched two of his infected neighbors who came staggering out of the shrubbery and then later a cute little fox that went poking around in their remains, but this isn’t an action movie per se. It’s barely even a zombie movie, more a Dad dealing with his daughter’s deadly disease movie, which is fine unless you’re expecting exploding heads. Maggie‘s leisurely pace affords Schwarzenegger the opportunity to tap into an emotional vein he’s rarely considered before. And he’s surprisingly effective. As is the film’s post-apocalyptic near-monochromatic look and its intriguing sound design—wind everywhere you listen, brushfires snapping, crackling, and popping, and Maggie’s asthmatic breathing. Overall though, the film is a little too deliberate for its own good, amounting to one long waiting game with an inevitable payoff.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2009)

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John Cazale, an “actor’s actor” who appeared in five iconic movies in the span of six short years—The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter—succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 42. His romantic partner at the time, Meryl Streep, whom he met while filming The Deer Hunter, was with him at the end, and describes Cazale’s effect on his co-stars this way: “[He] challenged them to take their own games up a notch.” He might well have; each of the films in which he appeared was nominated for Best Picture, and three of them won. I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale is Richard Shepard’s loving, 39-minute tribute to the influential performer many recognize as Fredo Corleone from the ‘Godfather films, but few can put a name to. The characters Cazale played were all vulnerable, tormented, and sad, whether on the New York stage (where he got his start, performing alongside the likes of Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert De Niro) or during his tragically short film career. Sidney Lumet, who directed Cazale and Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, originally planned to cast a 19-year-old kid for the role of Sal, sad sack partner to Pacino’s manic bank robber Sonny. But Pacino convinced Lumet to consider Cazale instead, and the 40-year-old with the receding hairline and the lank locks got the part. I Knew It Was You… (the title refers to a pivotal scene in The Godfather: Part II between Cazale and Pacino) is an opportunity for a smattering of Hollywood insiders to wax nostalgic about Cazale’s contributions to the industry, focusing on his work. Among those interviewed are the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, Francis Ford Coppola, Olympia Dukakis, Gene Hackman, Brett Ratner, Carol Kane, John Savage, and Steve Buscemi… who provides an amusing anecdote over the end credits about “working with” Cazale. Short and supremely sweet, I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale sheds some much-deserved light on a talented yet “shy and emotionally-sensitive” human being who was taken from us all too soon.


(c) 2016 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com