Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul
★ out of four stars
Rated: PG for rude humor. 

“The Long Haul” is an ironically apt subtitle for this film. One hesitates to refer to it as a “comedy,” as the jokes are few and far between. No, “horror” was the word that popped into mind frequently during these grim 90 minutes.

The fourth installment in “The Wimpy Kid” series, it’s a road trip that serves as a terrifying cautionary tale about distracted driving. Adults in the audience may cower every time one of the parents behind the wheel takes their eyes off the road or uses their phone while shepherding a teen, tween, toddler, spouse, piglet and boat trailer behind a cursed minivan. Belly laughs? More like stomach lurches. It’s more harrowing than “Fate of the Furious” — at least Vin Diesel never texts while driving.

This is one bumpy, miserable ride, a dirge of unfunny scatological material, techno-anxiety and child endangerment masquerading as familial bonding.
Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service 

Neither Wolf Nor Dog
★★★½ out of four stars
Unrated by the MPAA; suitable for all audiences.
Theater: Lagoon. 

Adapted from the 1996 Minnesota Book Award winning novel, this touching drama covers some familiar topics about white and Indian relations with refreshing levels of awkward honesty and wry humor. It follows the challenging yet cleansing relationship between Dan, a seen-it-all Lakota elder at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and Nerburn, a guilt-stricken white author who has road-tripped from Minnesota to the rez to deal with the old man’s request to write his story. The book-smart outsider has trouble keeping pace, as Dan channels his inner trickster for laughs and to drive home painful, important points about Native American history.

Director Steven Lewis Simpson, who co-wrote the script with novelist Kent Nerburn, captures the textures of rural life in rundown houses, the vastly empty South Dakota Badlands, well intentioned ineptitude and ancient wounds that bleed again when visiting a site like Wounded Knee. The late Dave Bald Eagle, who played Dan at the age of 95, is as hypnotic as a wise old turtle, and Christopher Sweeney shines as the out-of-his-league writer, alternately apologetic and irritated. After a slow opening, the story develops strong momentum. By the time the end credits arrive, the characters of this modest, crowdfunded feature are practically unforgettable. It’s immensely serious but no downer.

Jeremiah Tower, The Last Magnificent
★★★ out of four stars
Unrated by the MPAA; suitable for all audiences.
Theater: Edina. 

If this celebratory documentary is correct, Jeremiah Tower was the love child of Thomas Edison and Julia Child, the gourmet inventor who revolutionized American dining, saving us from wedge salads and overcooked T-bones. The acclaimed chef and restaurateur is on hand to remember it all, with big-time food writers joining in to back him up. As the neglected child of socialite parents, he fell in love with cruise ship menus, designing feasts the way that a kid interested in architecture would design imaginary towns. Tower made his dreams come true after stumbling into a kitchen job at a little hideaway in Berkeley, Calif., called Chez Panisse, creating gustatory galas, festivals and special-occasion meals with magical skill. His creativity caught on with copycats across the nation, but Tower always stayed several steps ahead of the crowd, pushing American cuisine to new heights.

Director Lydia Tenaglia has a challenging task, balancing the rise-and-fall business saga of Tower’s career with a warts-and-all portrait of a singular, sometimes difficult man. A child actor portraying his Lord Fauntleroy years sends the film tumbling at the starter’s block, but as he moves into adulthood and commentaries from awe-struck observers, balance is restored. The film shows him as a largely lonely man today but one with memories that money couldn’t buy. You don’t need to love chefs, or even fine food, to be impressed.

★★★ out of four stars
Rated: R for language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images.
Theater: Lagoon. 

New Jersey-born Chuck Wepner was one of heavyweight boxing’s best known fighters of the 1970s, not because of his win column but because he was able to take a ton of punches and stay on his feet. Nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder,” he was offered a 1975 title bout against the aging Muhammad Ali in which Wepner was more of a joking great white hope parody than an actual contender. The match was an embarrassment, but Wepner’s epic duration until the last 20 seconds of Round 15 turned him from a sports nobody to a pop idol, inspiring Sylvester Stallone’s iconic “Rocky” the following year.

Dramatic as that is, it’s just a slice of the life story in this engaging underdog tale more focused on Wepner’s wounds outside the ring than within it. In the title role, Liev Schreiber creates a fine character sketch of a good-hearted but deeply flawed palooka who worked as a liquor salesman throughout his boxing career. It’s no mystery why, when Stallone borrows his life story to win an Oscar, Wepner tries to siphon off some of the validation for himself. He never imagined that the day he lost to Ali was the greatest of his life.

The film gets its atmospherics just so, from the drab, working-class saloons where Wepner held court between the bar stools to the era’s tacky clothes, discos and regrettable hairstyles. It even gets Stallone right, with Morgan Spector nailing his look, sound and spirit way back when. Schreiber’s Wepner is an all-too-human goof-off. He’s largely likable even when he sporadically cheats on his wife (wonderfully played by Elisabeth Moss), misses parent-teacher conferences at his daughter’s school or takes ever-larger cocaine breaks with an admiring buddy (Jim Gaffigan). Also lending impressive support despite limited screen time are Naomi Watts as a bartender Wepner can’t resist flirting with, and Ron Perlman as his no-nonsense manager. “Chuck” will never have the same glory as “Rocky,” but it’s a worthy little contender.