by Coop Cooper
With the current spike of bigger-budget films shooting here in Mississippi, it’s easy to get excited when you see familiar faces featured prominently on the screen. Oxford resident Susan McPhail is one actor who has had an exceptional year and on Tuesday, August the 25th she attended the Oxford, MS premiere of “A Walk in the Woods” in which she plays an unforgettable role. Oh yeah, and the movie also stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
Retired travel writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) becomes restless and sets his sights on hiking the Appalachian Trail, a grueling 2,200 mile trek across mountainous terrain. His wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson), thinks Bill is going through some sort of life crisis but can’t seem to dissuade his sudden wanderlust. Eventually she manages to convince him not to go alone. Bill calls every friend in his rolodex, but no one bites until his former ne’er-do-well colleague, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), catches wind of the trip and invites himself along. On the way, they run afoul of annoying hikers, blizzards, bears, seductive women and jealous husbands. Far along the trail, Bill begins to regret bringing Stephen along and questions his own sanity for embarking on such an impulsive journey.
Largely entertaining and occasionally raunchy, “A Walk in the Woods” makes up for its stylistic shortcomings and hanging loose threads with a heavy dose of wit from its actors. This light and sweet memoir comedy geared towards an older audience mostly hits its mark but doesn’t always come across as sincere in its heavier moments.
Redford is the star power glue of this films which seems to mirror Redford’s own career as he approaches his 80s. Lately we have seen him pop up in more films like as the lead villain in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and as a lone sailor facing his doom in “All is Lost”, so he seems to be catching a second wind. He commands the screen almost as well as he did forty years ago and his comedy timing is surprisingly good, especially in the opening scene during a disastrous TV interview. His chemistry with Emma Thompson is wonderful but his rapport with Nolte is what makes the movie. In fact, Nolte steals just about every scene he is in. He is obviously the comic relief here, but one could argue he’s the heart of the entire film. Every line that comes out of his mouth is gold and every action he takes causes a hilarious amount of trouble for everyone. In fact, his most memorable scene happens with an up-and-coming Mississippi actress who is quickly becoming just as recognizable as her actor husband.
Oxford, Mississippi resident Susan McPhail plays the flirty laundromat seductress ‘Beulah’ who shares an uproarious moment with Nolte before getting him into a spot of trouble. Susan has been a familiar face in the local Mississippi film scene along with her well-established and talented husband, Johnny McPhail. Recently, Johnny has scored important roles in projects like the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”, the action comedy “American Ultra” (in theaters now) and the upcoming Civil War drama “The Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey.
Susan McPhail also has a significant role in the high-stakes gambling movie “Mississippi Grind” which is now currently playing on-demand on DirecTV Cinema and will release in theaters on September 25th. “Grind”, which was filmed on location in Boston, Debuque, New Orleans and Mobile stars Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds as gamblers hitting every casino down the Big River in search of a big score. Susan McPhail makes an appearance as a shrewd gambler and local Delta bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch also appears in a cameo as himself.
The Oxford premiere of “A Walk in the Woods” was put together by Oxford Film Festival director Melanie Addington who secured permission from Broad Green Pictures to show it with the proceeds going towards funding the 2016 film festival. The sold out screening was like a who’s-who of the Oxford arts scene with many prominent Oxonians in attendance and a few Clarksdale natives as well. Former Ole Miss Dean of Students Sparky Reardon and Clarksdale’s own Billy and Madge Howell were in attendance. Alas, neither Redford nor Nolte made an appearance.
With the upswing in the bigger-budget film productions in the state, hopefully we can expect more Mississippi premieres and special screenings in the future.
A “Walk in the Woods” releases in theaters today (Friday, Sept. 4).
Rating: 3 and ½ out of 5 stars