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Blu-Ray Review: ‘PETE’S DRAGON’

Synopsis: “Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), a woodcarver, delights local children with stories of a mysterious dragon that lives deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) believes these are just tall tales, until she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley), a 10-year-old orphan who says he lives in the woods with a giant, friendly dragon. With help from a young girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence), Grace sets out to investigate if this fantastic claim can be true.” Read More

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Out in Theaters: A WALK IN THE WOODS

*This is a reprint of our 2015 Sundance review.

Robert Redford‘s adaptation of Bill Bryson‘s popular 1998 memoir A Walk In the Woods is an unremarkable journey with a short sprinkling of low-key chuckles and a heaving dose of schmaltzy sentiment. As Redford’s travel companion, co-star Nick Nolte manages to give this low-percolating buddy comedy/road-movie-on-foot at least some minor footing, but its not enough to balance the overwrought equilibrium. Mining the material for all its geriatric sitcom worth, director Ken Kwapis‘ internal clock ticks with the fervor of a retiree, as he fails to charge the material with any sense of driving momentum. As much as Nolte’s character drags his feet, it’s Kwapis who lags most. For a film all about the journey forward, that presents a major problem. Read More

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Sundance Review: A WALK IN THE WOODS

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Robert Redford
‘s adaptation of Bill Bryson‘s popular 1998 memoir A Walk In the Woods is an unremarkable journey with a short sprinkling of low-key chuckles and a heaving dose of schmaltzy sentiment. As Redford’s travel companion, co-star Nick Nolte manages to give this low-percolating buddy comedy/road-movie-on-foot at least some minor footing, but its not enough to balance the overwrought equilibrium. Mining the material for all its geriatric sitcom worth, director Ken Kwapis‘ internal clock ticks with the fervor of a retiree, as he fails to charge the material with any sense of driving momentum. As much as Nolte’s character drags his feet, it’s Kwapis who lags most. For a film all about the journey forward, that presents a major problem.

There curtain opens on Bill Bryson (Redford) plopped in an interview chair and grilled by a Boston newscaster. Between high-browed snaps at travel journalism, this liberal-shmearing mockery of a media man criticizes Bryson for writing solely about experiences abroad. He questions, “Why have you never written about America?” Something twinkles in Bryson as a hit from this overcharged snark battleship appears to sink something within him. Seeing Redford seemed only half-full to begin with, his deflation fails to strike a nerve.

We’re lead to believe that that exchange – in addition to the death of a distant friend – inspires Bryson to reach outside the box and spring for that one final adventure. Now well over the hill, his spirit journey down the Appalachian is not one his wife (Emma Thompson) is willing to broad. Not unless Bill has a buddy in tow.

After a series of cold-called rejections, Bryson finds himself on the phone with a washed-up alcoholic friend of yore, Stephen Katz (Nolte), who he’d not seen since a calamitous Euro-trip some 40 years back. Desperate for company, he succumbs to this only option and sets out to take on the 2,179 mile trek with this “friend” of unenviable gait. Their journey brings them to head with annoying companions, bears and vengeful boyfriends but never fails to feel like more than a montage of mildly assuming moments.

Nolte’s gruff grumbles provide a sense of abject naturalism – an old half-bitter man quietly raging, forsaking himself of bad life choices – that is oddly lacking in this flick that’s surrounded by nature. He’s the only one on the border of bearing his soul as Redford seems to more or less ice-skate his way through his depiction of an aging, intellectual playboy. An uncomfortable amount of blame ought be laid at screenwriter Michael Arndt‘s (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine) feet as the script is flatter than the Georgia section of the trail. It doesn’t help when Kwapis can’t discern when to start and stop the camera. Or where to point it.

There’s a nice moment in A Walk in the Woods where a star-gazing Katz waxes on existence, speculating about just how many millions of stars they can see out here in the great nothing. Bryson matter-of-factly corrects him: only five thousand are visible to the naked eye. Katz shakes it off, “I’m a big picture kind of guy.” If only Kwapis could have learned this same lesson.

Unabashedly sentimental and overtly geared towards the elderly folks in the audience, the overly tender Kwapis filters his comic sensibility through an aggressively broad strainer. The outcome is the equivalent of cinematic baby food: mushy, flavorless and far too safe.

C-

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Out in Theaters: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Toby Jones
Adventure, Action, Sci-Fi
136 Mins
PG-13

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Growing up in the 1940s gives Steve Rogers an excuse to not understand the mechanics of speed dial. But when neo-Nazi’s threaten the freedom of the entire world, you have to wonder why he’s not more focused on contacting his nuclear suit-wearing chum, Tony Stark, or the bad Shakespeare in the park actor/Norse God, Thor. Unless he’s gone on some spirit journey to be explained away in extra Blu-Ray bonus material, Tony’s probably just shambling around Stark Towers in his drawers. His billionaire skyline must be literally cast in shadow by the helicarriers of doom that Captain America’s trying to take down with the only weapons at his disposal: record-breaking sprinting skills and a shield.  The fate of the entire world is at stake and here’s good hearted Steve clearly taking a hell of an ass-whopping and he still doesn’t see fit to call up his Avengers pals? Or at least try? I’m sorry but you lost me there.

The one thing that Kevin Fiege and his Marvel Movie Universe croonies tend to get right is they suit the adventure to the adventurer. The threats Iron Man faced in his third outing were largely personal. A wronged colleague becomes a viable villain, he’s forced to deal with PDST from a near death experience and his personal arsenal of humanoid WMDs transforms him from a private citizen into national defense mascot numero uno. There were larger implications at play had he not gotten his guy but Stark at least felt well equipped to handle the charge. Thor’s arc in The Dark World involves intergalactic worm holes, gigantic frost monsters and 8-foot tall Dark Elves. But Thor wields a hammer forged in a dying star that gives him the ability to fly around like a blonde, bearded Superman. Being, you know, a god, Thor was the Avenger best equipped to handle such a mark. Sure, having other Supers alongside wouldn’t have hurt but this was a mission that suited Thor’s pedigree. Equipped only with a hunky body, a pure heart and strips of pure sinew for legs (made for putting fellow long distance runners to shame), Captain America (Chris Evans) just seems out of his depths.

Look at him in The Winter Soldier. His big mission involves a retread task (one we already saw a version of in The Avengers) that he’s simply unfit to handle because, well, his superpowers aren’t really that super. His third act heroics necessitate a flying wingman because he’s simply not equipped to handle the mission solo. Joining him is snarky sidekick Anthony Mackie as Falcon, an ex-Marine with a winged exoskeleton, because calling up Tony Stark or Thor was just… out of the question?

Part and parcel of enjoying these Marvel movies is digesting them with a spoonful of salt, especially when we’re looking at them from a logical standpoint and not a logistical one. Omissions are necessary from a budgetary standpoint and we have to be willing to overlook that… to some degree. But rather than make these shortcomings apparent, smart screenwriting would try to mask the need for the whole gang. This is where Captain America: The Winter Soldier fails hardest; an especially sad reality when contrasted to the contained spy thriller that it’s established as.

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Since the events of The Avengers, Cap and his shield shield S.H.I.E.L.D. Before this, Iron Man 2 was the first MMU film to tackle the build towards The Avengers head on and got far too bogged down in the goings on at that shadowy organization to stand as a film itself. The Winter Soldier has becomes it’s Phase 2 predecessor. Like Iron Man 2, it suffers from a fatal diagnosis of teaser syndrome. It’s all about what’s to come, not what’s happening in the now. By the end of the film, the chapter isn’t closed, it’s just beginning. Even it’s titular character, that mysterious Winter Soldier (played by a hollowed out Sebastian Stan), is relegated to a minor role with only an inkling of character.

If only Marvel would realize that not ever venture needed a third-act calamity, that millions must not be dumped on visual effects and that telling a self-contained story is a virtue in itself, then this could have been a rousing triumph. As it is, Cap 2 works so much better when its sights are centered on the smaller scale, when Steve and Scar Jo‘s Black Widow are traipsing around hunting for clues, trying to put a name to faceless villainy.

Give me more super-noir, less hapless explosions. Give me the humor and tragedy of Cap being a man lost in time. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely show savvy sneaking in some current political hot buttons as subtext but fail to tell the more personal story of a lost man adapting to a whole damn new century. But this is bane of the Russo Bros’ film; it takes one step forward, two steps back. Every cheer is followed up with a few jeers. With character resolution left dealt with in post-credit stingers and a third act that may as well have been helidropped in from some other movie, the modest enjoyment one gets from Captain America: The Winter Soldier just doesn’t justify the $170 million dollars spent. It’s too busy shoulder tapping you to go see The Avengers 2.

C

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First Trailer for CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER

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The first trailer for Captain America: The Winter Solider has arrived and, unsurprisingly, it’s looking pretty solid. Following Chris Evan‘s Steve Rogers as he acclimates to living in the 21st century and adjusts to his new position working for S.H.I.E.L.D., the real question is whether this can stand out among the pack if it will just be another solid effort from Marvel. At this point, the studio has a formula for success that’s been working wonders for them. However successful that initial campaign is though, they’ll have to switch gears sooner rather than later if they want to keep proceedings interesting. 

The official synopsis reads:

After the cataclysmic events in New York with The Avengers, Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” finds Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, living quietly in Washington, D.C. and trying to adjust to the modern world. But when a S.H.I.E.L.D. colleague comes under attack, Steve becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue that threatens to put the world at risk. Joining forces with the Black Widow, Captain America struggles to expose the ever-widening conspiracy while fighting off professional assassins sent to silence him at every turn. When the full scope of the villainous plot is revealed, Captain America and the Black Widow enlist the help of a new ally, the Falcon. However, they soon find themselves up against an unexpected and formidable enemy—the Winter Soldier.

Captain America: The Winter Solider is directed by Anthony and Joe Russo and stars Chris Evans, Frank Grillo, Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Cobie Smoulders, Emily VanCamp, Dominic Cooper, and Toby Jones. It hits theaters on April 4, 2014.

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Out in Theaters: ALL IS LOST

“All is Lost”
Directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Robert Redford
Action, Drama
108 Mins
PG-13

2013 is the year of the survivor-thriller reigning supreme. In Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón explored themes of isolation amidst the inhospitable vacuum of space, using dazzling special effects to elevate a simple story to a visual masterpiece. Paul Greengrass dove into the true account of Richard Phillips and his struggle to maintain his humanity in a Somali pirate hostage situation in Captain Phillips, an excellent biopic fueled by a knockout performance from Tom Hanks. In All is Lost, J.C. Chandor pits man against entropy, testing the endurance of the human spirit against an onslaught of ill-tempered serendipity at sea. It must be time for a genre victory lap, because once more, survivor-thrillers have just crowned themselves king.

There is something about these types of films that make us want to rise from our seats and cheer. They drive us to invest, they urge us to care. They recognize the most enticing aspect of our own humanity, our un-surrendering urge to live. Unlike the cataclysmic weather catastrophe of The Perfect Storm, the humanist reckless abandon of this year’s Danish film Kon Tiki, or the global satellite calamity of Gravity, All is Lost follows a relatively meager story, one of bad odds and “Ah shit!” coincidences, but however paltry it might seem from afar, it ends up having more meat on its bones than either of the two former stories combined.

As the unnamed, gruff hero of this expedition, Robert Redford hardly utters a single line of dialogue and yet carries the film squarely on his shoulders. Even without a true spoken line, there is never a time when Redford’s weathered chops don’t convince us of the track-halting gravity of his worsening circumstance. Even while he remains collected and fine-tuned, it is clear that his situation is rather grim. But Redford’s “Our Man” goes about course correcting with the smooth confidence of a career father, trying to carry us into smooth seas, both physically and metaphorically. With his panic pushed deep down, Redford is a machine of physical efficiency, an Einstein of deep-breathed problem solving.

To be the only man credited on a cast list (there’s not even a glimpse of another face, not a whisper of another voice) is a pretty unique accomplishment, but to do so and be a serious Oscar contender is another thing entirely. Redford lays down a silent tour-de-force, reckoning those who may have called him on “phoning it in” in this later stage of his career. If there’s one thing Redford is not, it’s a hack, and even when his directorial projects land with a bit of a thud, it’s not for lack of trying.

In All is Lost, his measured passion and experienced bravado guide us through a range of emotions, however restrained and simmering they may be. But this is the most challenging, and often least appreciated, act of them all. Conveying buried emotions, those under a veneer of levelheaded collection, takes conditioned skill and requires a deeper commitment to self-exploration than those spilling over the surface in winded theatrical monologues or emotion-stricken outbursts.

The decision to put so much stock in Redford’s ability to single-handedly emote his way through a film takes a boatload of guts, to Chandor’s credit. But Chandor’s deep-seated confidence in Redford is doubled in his cool, collected approach. Evident from the blueprint of a dialogue-bereft script, Chandor obviously is a man of vision, swinging for the fences. Instead of deploying red herrings, arm wrestling the audience into a false sense of tension, everything from the very get-go is very real and very dangerous. 

 

From the opening shot that confusingly pans across a shipping container adrift at sea (I initially thought the shot was of a red dock attached to land), the sensation of something amiss comes barreling from the screen. It’s no surprise that the lost shipping container – human clumsiness and carelessness personified – is the culprit of the “Who punctured my boat?” mystery. Even worse, the salt water gushing through the boat’s gaping hole has destroyed all electrical navigation and communication equipment. From minute one, the stakes are sky high. The hole is in the boat, the boat is in the water, the water is in the boat and as it turns out, the ocean is large…very large. There’s no phoning in support, no cries for help, just a need to grab your bootstraps, yank them up as high as possible and try to start calculating your way out of the ghastly inevitability of drowning. Here, throwing in the towel means certain death.

What transcribes over the following 106 minutes is the story of a man fighting tooth-and-nail for survival against all odds, even when all is lost. Just as he patches up one problem, another surfaces, and another, and another. From sharks to lack of supplies to a crumbling mast, his very humanity dangles at the end of a rope but it’s not something he will abandon without the fight of his life.

Captured with crisp imagery from cinematographers Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini, it’s almost hard to believe that the film was shot almost entirely on a water stage (the same one used in 1997 for Titanic actually). Though backed by a small army of digital effects workmen, the water-logged stunts have a sense of immediacy and deep-splintered truth to them largely lacking from CGI-driven films. Although Gravity elevates visual panache to a new level, it fails to hone in as acutely on the emotional isolation of its central character, giving Redford and crew a matured edge over Sandra Bullock and Co. emotionally.

The creaks and moans of the tried ship mimic the heaves and hoes of a exasperated Redford, visual cues as foreboding and understated as the hardly visible score from Alex Ebert. Each adds their own signature to the layer cake of suspense, rather than seeking glory for their own right. it’s this sum-of-all-parts attitude that really makes the film sing. Chandor’s vision is so exact and his execution so precise, that All is Lost adds up to one doozie of an experience. Finger-nibblingly exciting when it needs to be, nimbly quiet when called for, but always full of hope and tenacity, All is Lost is a whopper.

A

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