The Way Way Back (2013)

Posted in Comedy on August 1, 2013 by The Confused Critic

(***½ out of ****)

Way Back 4

Synopsis: Duncan (Liam James) is a shy, perpetually uncomfortable 14-year old forced to spend the summer with his mom (Toni Collette) and her hostile boyfriend (Steve Carell) at the latter’s beach house. While the adults of the town (an amalgam of Wareham and Buzzards Bay, MA) regress and indulge their appetites for sex, alcohol, and light drugs, the teens are left to their own devices with little supervision. Feeling agonizingly out of place and miserable, Duncan explores the town and ends up growing close to Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of Water Wizz, a local waterpark that has not changed much since its establishment thirty years prior. Detecting his unhappiness, Owen provides Duncan with a part-time job, a never-ending supply of good-natured sass, and a more optimistic outlook. Life lessons are experienced by all.

Review: Not fully an independent film, not quite a major studio product, The Way Way Back is a welcome change of pace in a summer dominated by superheroes, apocalypses, and the baffling existence of Grown Ups 2. It is a relatively quiet, understated movie that treads over the well-worn grounds of young love, adolescent-adult tension, and the angst of the early teenage years without feeling clichéd or melodramatic. Audiences are treated to a feel-good movie that wisely steers clear of the sap and eccentricity to which films like this often resort. Skillfully mixing the drama and comedy, it manages to evade predictability and remains engaging throughout.

One of the film’s biggest accomplishments is effectively integrating and developing each of its characters to a level that moves them beyond mere archetypes. Endearing or antagonistic, directors/co-writers/co-stars Jim Rash and Nat Faxon have created an effective ensemble of colorful players who are each indispensable to the unique chemistry of the film. Sam Rockwell gives one of his most dynamic and enjoyable performances, which says a lot when considering his impressive filmography. Similarly, Steve Carell supplies a highly believable villain that will likely silence critics who suggest that he plays the same character in every role he is given. Furthermore, the unpolished performances of some of the more inexperienced, younger actors provides a natural tone, making them appear legitimately gawky and uncomfortable in their surroundings. Supporting players such as Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet, and a surly Allison Janney also manage to add crucial humor and pathos and ensure that no one actor could possibly possess all of the glory.

The Way Way Back might not appeal to the viewer who is seeking a traditional, unambiguous resolution to their movies. Though not without its share of cinematic conveniences, the film attempts to ground its characters in reality and eschews the temptation to give the protagonists the easy solutions that they seek. While, more often than not, morality overcomes debauchery, Duncan is forced to accept the fact that he does, in fact, lack the autonomy he desires and will not be able to comprehend the motivations of the adults surrounding him. He is forced to learn that some aspects of his life will always be flawed, some people are jerks who never get their comeuppance, and sometimes we cannot obtain the easy closure for which we long. Instead, the audience observes subtle changes in the characters which are not initially apparent. Regardless, if you are one of those people who bemoan the lack of original storylines in today’s movies, you owe this movie at least one watch.

The Confused Take: I am admittedly a sucker for the coming-of-age genre and all of its awkward charms. As long as the quirk factor is reigned in to a bearable degree, such films have the potential to be simultaneously realistic, sentimental, and funny. If you are someone who enjoyed the core elements of Adventureland, Stand By Me, Sixteen Candles, or Garden State (minus the constant brooding), you will at least get some level of enjoyment out of The Way Way Back. Having grown up in Massachusetts and patronized Water Wizz in my younger years, I also felt a special connection to the film and could not help but relate to some of the painful feelings that Duncan faced. At the very least, this movie will give you a breather from the other-worldly chaos and bombast of this summer’s string of numbing, though often enjoyable, franchise mainstays. Hopefully, you’ll also come away with a newfound/renewed appreciation for Sam Rockwell.

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A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

Posted in Action, Sequel on March 7, 2013 by The Confused Critic

(*½ out of ****)

A Good Day to Die Hard

Halfway through the magnum opus of chaos and destruction known as A Good Day to Die Hard, John McClane asks his son, “What’s my thing?” after being told that discussing feelings has never been his forte. “Fucking killing bad guys! That’s your thing!” bellows his precocious son in the midst of a gun fight. Such eloquent dialogue reminds us that this is what happens when you hire the screenwriter responsible for penning the A-Team and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Where is Family Matters’ Reginald VelJohnson (aka Carl Winslow) when you need him? I’ll even settle for Justin Long at this point…

The latest profit-seeking endeavor in the Die Hard franchise finds tireless Mr. Clean understudy McClane (Bruce Willis) venturing to Moscow to locate his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who has been arrested for assassinating a high-ranking Russian government official who we learn nothing about. In order to reduce his sentence, Jack, an undercover CIA agent, agrees to testify against Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), a political prisoner being forced to stand trial by a corrupt politician. Naturally, the elder McClane shows up right as terrorists blast their way into this hackneyed mess and force the father/son duo to reunite in a partnership for the ages. “Some kind of vacation…” and “I’m too old for this shit” jokes, a jaunt to Chernobyl, and boring CGI carnage ensue for 97 teal and orange lens tinted minutes.

The fifth in the series, A Good Day to Die Hard lacks all of the charm, excitement, and suspense of its predecessors. Essentially one long continuous chase sequence, it fails to establish a creative story or characters that draw us in. Whereas past entries in the series had notoriously hammy villains portrayed by the likes of Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons, we get nothing of the sort here. Rather than establish one head honcho, the film delights in an endless stream of reveals as to who the “true” villain is. Unfortunately, the script fails to provide enough character development for any of us to care or even feign a sense of surprise.

What truly dooms this sequel is the fact that the character Willis plays no longer bears any significant resemblance to the John McClane in the original film. Sure, he is still sarcastic, surly, and rough around the edges, but the original McClane reacted with fear and self-doubt in the harrowing scenarios he faced. Here, instead, we get an indestructibly cocky robot that seems rather ho-hum about blowing away hoards of terrorists with an oversized machine gun. Gone is the flawed family man who would walk barefoot across a floor littered with shards of glass to protect his loved ones. Conversely, we get a McClane who taunts his son after he is impaled by a metal beam in his side, mockingly asking him if he’d like to cry. Rather than being the self-deprecating protagonist who once infamously questioned how the “same thing can happen to the same guy twice,” we now find a jaded character who appears to have bought into his own legend and turned into a generic, one-note superhero.

Willis has reportedly stated that he would like to do one more Die Hard sequel before retiring the series for good. Whether he made this decision after viewing the disappointing final cut of this movie is unclear, but let’s hope that the people over at 20th Century Fox devise a better game plan the next time around. For starters, don’t hire a director whose credits include Max Payne. Second, develop believable stunt sequences that provide an actual sense of exhilaration rather than the notion that you are viewing a videogame cut scene. Lastly, make the entire cast and crew watch any of the first three films in the series so that there is a better understanding of why people wanted to see these movies in the first place.

The Confused Take: Despite all the negative press that this movie has been receiving, I went into the theatre feeling optimistic that I could at least find some redeeming qualities that others had missed. After all, I was sufficiently entertained by the oft-maligned Live Free or Die Hard, so I thought that perhaps this entry would provide an equivalent level of brain-dead enjoyment. Unfortunately nothing here works. The overblown, nonstop action quickly becomes dull, especially when it is soon apparent that none of the characters are going to be subjected to any real injury. Not even a shoe-horned Mary Elizabeth Winstead cameo as McClane’s daughter can bring any integrity to this mess. As a faithful fan of the Die Hard series, I sought out this movie for a sense of completion but left wondering whether Sylvester Stallone’s Bullet to the Head would have been a more productive use of my time.

And so it begins…

Posted in Uncategorized on September 14, 2012 by The Confused Critic