Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: The Way, Way Back

If you drive deep into Eastern North Carolina, there is a small town in Bladen County named White Lake. Less than 1,000 people make it their permanent residence, but during the summer the campgrounds around the lake swell with folks who own little trailers that become their unofficial summer residences. Once the sun sets, you are liable to find more golf carts on the roads than cars, as people drive house to house looking the next keg party or pig pickin’.

These images are what first came to mind upon viewing Academy Award winning screenwriters (The Descendants) and first time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back. Set during a summer seemingly made to be 14-year-old Duncan’s personal hell, he finds himself trapped on vacation in a spot much like what I described above with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her boyfriend (Steve Carell), and his teenage daughter. The evenings are packed with neighborhood parties and cookouts, and the days spent surrounded by teenagers he could not be less like. Every family outing becomes a journey into embarrassment for Duncan until he meets the manager of a run-down water park, Owen (Sam Rockwell), who takes the kid under his wing and somehow manages to coax him out of his introverted shell.

Many have lauded the comedy-drama since its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, but I was nowhere near prepared for what I found when I walked into the screening a couple of weeks ago. Expecting something along the feel-good lines of a Little Miss Sunshine, perhaps even a slightly less hipster Juno, what I found instead was a heartwarming coming of age tale that invites us into a boy’s life for a short while, but long enough to watch as he develops the coping skills to make it as an adult. Anchored by a fine performance by Liam James, the young Duncan must deal with a potential stepfather who views him as an opponent for his mother’s love and a shy nature that allows girls his age to taunt him with rumors of incest. Even his only mode of escape is a pink bike that has seen better days.

Perhaps the finest work by actors in TWWB would be the duo of Collette and Allison Janney, here playing a mom incapable of making the right decision. The two actresses play their roles from exact opposites of the spectrum, with Collette all quiet and loving to those around her, and Janney searching for the inch of scenery that she has yet to chew. The two weirdly counteract each other and bring the best out of the other in each scene they appear in together.

Faxon and Rash have made quite the auspicious debut behind the camera here, as they battle the remnants of the summer shoot-em-up season for a spot near the top of the box office charts this weekend. Regardless of where the film ends up on Sunday night, I already know there is a place waiting for it on my year-end Best of 2013 list.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: Red 2

An elderly man fakes his death to trick his friend into delivering a tear-filled eulogy while he’s still alive to hear it. A skit from a random episode of Betty White’s Off Their Rockers? Nope, just another example of the filmmakers’ belief that old folks be crazy in Red 2.

We open in Costco, where the happy star-crossed lovers from the first film, Frank (Bruce Willis) and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), are beginning to show that their relationship may not be built to last. Frank is more than happy to play the role of happy retiree now that the US government has no reason to hunt him down, while Sarah is beginning to miss the excitement that drew the two together in the first place.

Enter Marvin (John Malkovich), with a theory of a new conspiracy against the elder agents. It seems that someone has leaked the orders of a mission the two were on during the Cold War that involved the transport of a portable nuclear device. After a failed assassination attempt by government operative Jack Horton (Neal McDonough), the trio go on a globetrotting adventure that finds them ducking a hitman with a grudge (Byung-hun Lee), as well as their old friend Victoria (Helen Mirren).

Dean Parisot has been in Directors Jail since Fun with Dick and Jane failed to light up the box office in 2005. Mostly working in television since then, Red 2 is Parisot’s first feature in 8 years. Hopefully his bunk is still open, because I don’t believe this will be the film to cause his peers to figuratively raise his jersey to the rafters. Dull action sequences; uninspired work from Willis, and wasted efforts by Malkovich, Mirren, and Parker; and the latest in a long line to attempt to include comic panels as transitions without coming off as cheesy; all of this can be found inside!

A few of the actors manage to produce enjoyable work, but only by using the age-old method known as “chewing the scenery”. Brian Cox returns as Russian ally Ivan, who once again saves his friends’ hides while taking time to woo his beloved Victoria. David Thewlis appears as a Frenchman selling information to the highest bidder, with an incredible ability to avoid capture. Last but certainly not least is Anthony Hopkins as Bailey, the ill-fated creator of the nuclear weapon, who is also more than he seems.
How does Red 2 rank when compared to the first installment of the franchise? It’s actually really hard to say. While I enjoyed the first one quite a bit, this one failed to connect with me. I suppose it can be blamed on Parisot’s inability to draw the same “fun” out of the performers that original director Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D.) managed to produce. Suffice it to say, this is probably one you can afford to skip.