Images courtesy of New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, WingNut Films, and Warner Bros. Pictures.
Desolation, n. a state of complete emptiness or destruction.
Doesn’t it annoy you when people pick a word, maybe not even a particularly fitting word, to define an entire subject and then begin a discussion with a dictionarial definition of that word? Doesn’t it seem pedantic? Doesn’t it seem… almost sm[a]ug?
It’s been a while since I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And it’s been even longer since I read the book. So I have no right to be smaug, or even just plain smug, about anything to do with this movie, and I’m pretty sure some fans are going to take umbrage with my subject matter. In my defence, I mentioned last time how difficult it was to write reviews for epic-length movies, and I still stand by that statement. There’s just so much action, so many characters, and so much plot development to keep track of that it all boggles the mind a bit. But let’s try to dive into that, shall we?
Images courtesy of Bay & Thomas Productions and 20th Century Fox.
9×13: “Bass Player Wanted”
If you read my last review, you know that I wasn’t particularly happy with the way the rehearsal dinner went. It was fine, yes, but there was nothing really good about it. So I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this episode as much as I did—until the Mother showed up. I was pretty much hooked from that moment on.
It was Marshall versus the Machine once again, and he trudged down a country road while carrying his son and a suitcase. Then a van pulled up behind him, and who should be driving but my new best friend? She mentions that she’s the bass player in the band that’s playing the Farhampton wedding that weekend, but that she used to be the lead singer and is now about to be kicked out. Oh, and the van isn’t hers—it belongs to “the devil.”
Images courtesy of Bay & Thomas Productions and 20th Century Fox.
9×12: “The Rehearsal Dinner”
This episode begins with Barney handcuffed to a pipe in a laser tag security office. And that’s probably the highest point of the episode.
Remember back in season 9 when Robin planned Barney’s bachelor party and made it the worst night of his entire life? What you didn’t know is that, only a few short nights later, Barney announced that he was calling the wedding off and kicking Robin out of his apartment because he couldn’t handle the idea of marriage.
Nope, just kidding. Apparently Barney thinks that’s an awesome idea for a return prank, and as a result of such an excellent prank, Robin must be planning to get him back. And after he suggests the idea of a laser tag rehearsal dinner, obviously she’s going to plan that as a surprise for him. And excuse me for a second while I write that down, because frankly that idea is gold.
The Way, Way Back opens with Duncan, our main character, being asked to rate himself on a scale of one to ten by his mom’s latest boyfriend, Trent. And if you’re a particularly sensitive person whose childhood wasn’t all that it could’ve been, that should be a polarizing moment for you. That’s the moment when you know you’re either going to be all in, for every one of this film’s emotional struggles, or you’re just going to watch a decent movie that’s occasionally funny. For me, it’s one of the greatest, most resonant and meaningful openings I’ve ever seen. There’s so much in that moment, so much pain and torment and truth, and it completely sets the tone and direction of the rest of the film.
The Way, Way Back isn’t very innovative or new; for most of us, it’s not going to be a revelation that will change the course of our lives. But for just the right viewer, that person who’s felt what Duncan is feeling and remembers what it was like back then, when you couldn’t stand what was happening, you didn’t have any control, and you had no space of your own, it’s an emotional journey that manages to be substantial but not heavy, heart warming but not cloying, truthful without being awful, and absolutely right about the things that mattered to us most.
No wonder nobody saw it.
Duncan, a shy, introverted 14-year-old, is forced to spend the summer with his mother and her new boyfriend (and his teenage daughter) at his beach house in Cape Cod. Duncan soon finds himself isolated and alone in this place filled with confident, athletic teenagers and oblivious adults enjoying their own versions of a mid-life spring break. Wanting nothing more than to spend the summer with his biological father on the West Coast, it’s not until he discovers Water Wizz, a local water park, and is taken under the wing of park manager Owen, that he finds a place for himself.
I don’t know if there’s anything about that description that would make really make anyone want to see this movie. It doesn’t sound substantially different than any other coming-of-age tale, and without produced-for-Oscar-season writing, all-star casts, a mind-bending plot, or at least one supernatural element, The Way, Way Back isn’t exactly designed to stand out. Like I said, if you watched that rate yourself sequence and didn’t feel a slight prick and then a sharp pang of anxiety, then this movie probably might not be for you. But if you did feel those things, if you felt an instant connection with Duncan as you heard him rate himself a six only for his surrogate father figure to rate him a three, then I would urge you to watch this movie.
Just looking at him, I’m sure Jim Rash had a wonderful, non-tormented childhood.
Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning writing team behind 2011’s The Descendants, The Way, Way Back doesn’t boast the same level of prestige or self-importance as that George Clooney vehicle, nor does it have auteur director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, Sideways, About Schmidt) to take the lion’s share of the credit. But where The Descendants is about the horrors of adulthood and the things adults do to each other, The Way, Way Back picks right up as a movie about the horrors of childhood… and the terrible things adults do to their kids. It’s also better (and less desperately emotional).
It’s hard to watch The Way, Way Back and not feel an instant connection with Duncan. He goes to the beach like he’s told, plays with kids younger than him like he’s told, and does his best to find places other than his room to hang out like he’s told. He’s awkward around everyone, especially girls his own age, and far from having any self-confidence or ability to fit in, he doesn’t even believe he can exist in this place so diametrically opposed to everything he wants or needs. As I watched him go through his days, being singled out as the only one who has to wear a life jacket, waiting to be excused from dinner tables populated by unconcerned adults (and no kids to talk to), staying out late exclusively to avoid talking to his parents, it almost felt like the producers were drawing from moments straight from my own life. Faxon and Rash display an uncommon knowledge and remembrance of places best left forgotten and times we hope we’ve grown up from even as we let them scar us much farther into our adulthoods than they should.
Along the way, however, you also start picking up on other perspectives. Duncan is our protagonist to be sure, but as you watch his mother going through the motions of what will no doubt become another failed relationship, you start to realize how hard it must be to live your life in the aftermath of failed relationships. When I was growing up, most of my friends’ parents were divorced, and, frankly, it sounded kind of great. Two houses, two living experiences, sometimes even two parents competing with each other. In the ‘90s, I think most North American concepts of marriage had moved well past the idea that divorce represented some kind of failing, and I never once got the sense that any of my friends held themselves guiltily responsible for their parents’ breakup(s). I, on the other hand, grew up with married parents that I always wanted to see get divorced, and I can tell you that this “stay together for the kids” notion doesn’t work when it’s obvious the two shouldn’t be together. But as much as I’ve hated my parents when I thought I was right, come to rely on them when I shouldn’t have needed to, learned from them even when they didn’t have a lesson to teach, and wondered aloud why they would ever continue in a relationship like theirs, I can at least appreciate where they’re coming from after watching The Way, Way Back. It’s that sense of and dedication to authenticity that makes The Way, Way Back absolutely shine.
Don’t worry if you lose touch with Susanna after this one magical summer, Duncan. I’m pretty sure her fresh face and knowing looks end up becoming this.
In terms of acting, The Way, Way Back benefits from a strong cast, including Toni Collette as Pam, Duncan’s mom, AnnaSophia Robb as Susanna, Duncan’s age-appropriate girl-next-door crush, Allison Janney’s perpetually drunk Betty, Rob Corddry’s Kip, and Amanda Peet’s overtly flirtatious Joan. Relative newcomer Liam James is utterly convincing as the type of outsider teens like to mess with and adults don’t understand. I get the feeling he actually is one of those kids and that he’s not acting at all. Steve Carell, in a complete 180 from his more familiar roles, is pitch perfect as Trent, a bully of a surrogate father who you know, deep down, is even more of an asshole than he is on the outside. Sam Rockwell, as Owen’s manager and eventual mentor, is charismatic, deeply caring, and completely understanding of what Duncan’s going through in a role that shows the actor’s ability to fully inhabit the roles he’s given. Especially given how often Iron Man 2 seems to be on TV lately, it’s jarring to see how different Rockwell can come across in a role like Justin Hammer, a sleezy, loathsome, underhanded weapons manufacturing head. It’s not as if Rockwell’s Justin Hammer delivers his lines in a markedly different manner or exhibits wildly different physical mannerisms. There’s just something about Rockwell’s portrayals that makes you want to get away from Hammer as soon as possible, even as you would spend all of your time with his Owen. Finally, Maya Rudolph, as Owen’s long-suffering assistant Caitlyn, brings depth to a character who is easy to overlook.
There’s enough character material on display in The Way, Way Back that, if this were a movie brought to us by a cruder, more Apatow-esque creative team, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine spin-off movies about Owen’s continuing need to grow up and become the man Caitlyn deserves, Trent’s need to grow out of his narcissistic tendencies to become the father his daughter needs, or Betty’s continued descent into drunken-ness in her search for a man. Even though I don’t really want to see a Faxon/Rash franchise stable of recurring characters in movies of varying validity (not that I don’t enjoy Judd Apatow’s better movies), this wellspring of fully realized characters with their own stories, motivations and needs all greatly assists in delivering The Way, Way Back’s central theme — that no matter how angry we have every right to be, we all have to take control of our own lives (even if we’re not all lucky enough to have people and places around us to help).
For a certain type of person, The Way, Way Back is deeply arresting for its message and execution, but for me it wouldn’t have meant as much to me if I had seen it in my teens, even if it’s fundamentally about being a young teenager. Its themes are universal enough that it maintains essential meaning to almost anyone of any age, but in some significant ways, it almost feels like it’s the perfect movie for someone like me, and it managed to hit me just about as hard as it could. Even at my advanced age of “somewhere over twenty-five”, when I’ve already compartmentalized most of my childhood traumas, sorted my thoughts on the universe, and now have epiphanies only occasionally, I still vividly remember (and occasionally recall) the various tragedies and triumphs of youth that would define me as a person. It’s exactly that kind of close yet distant feeling, that proximity to out formative years no matter how long ago those years may have been, that the film plays off most, and its that formation of self that it captures so well. It’s a film that reminds us that we have to take care of ourselves, because our parents, our role models, our family and friends all have their own sh*t to deal with. And even though there’s still a significant distance between my knowledge of that advice on an intellectual level and my acting that advice out in real life, I still feel like I’m a little bit better of a person for having seen The Way, Way Back.
And so we come full circle. Sort of. Well, a character from the first episode is back. So half circle. Sort of. I don’t know. Whatever.
Here we are at the midseason point anyway, and I feel like I can definitively say that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not a good show. Not by a longshot. It’s not a tumbling travesty, but it’s doing little more than treading water, its producers content to make it an utterly average and typical show. The most common complaint you’re likely to hear about the show is that it fails to make the most of its Marvel universe setting, and while that’s an easy observation to make, the problems with the show run much deeper. Its characters are flat and lifeless, and its stories are boring and predictable. Worst of all, from what I can tell from having read interviews and the general vibe given off by each episode, there just seems to be no ambition on the part of the creative team — showrunners, producers, and writers — to make anything special. It’s become incredibly frustrating watching a show defined by superhuman potential realized in such a mediocre way.
Here’s a list of all the Tom Cruise movies I’ve seen and enjoyed:
Jack Reacher, all of the Mission: Impossibles except II, War of the Worlds, Collateral, The Last Samurai, Minority Report, Vanilla Sky, Interview with the Vampire, Born on the Forth of July, Top Gun, and Risky Business.
I enjoyed all of those movies, I feel they were all a worthwhile use of my movie-going time, and I think they all benefitted from Tom Cruise’s performances.
When it comes to Tom Cruise movies (and just about every movie he’s in is a Tom Cruise movie, no matter how large or small his part), I always feel like I have to explain myself. It was about eight months ago that I reviewed Jack Reacher, and everybody I talked to couldn’t get past the Tom Cruise part of that movie enough to go see it let alone take my review of it seriously (not that we’re really angling for our reviews to be taken seriously). Sure, there’s the Scientology, the erratic behavior, the maniac laughter, the obviously manufactured-for-public-acceptance personal life… but none of that’s bad enough that it should necessarily be a drag on his box office returns. Continue reading →
Images courtesy of AMC and Fox International Channels
4×08: “Too Far Gone”
One of the big surprises from last season’s conclusion is that the Governor got away. He wasn’t shot, eaten, or tortured to death, and remained at large no matter what fate he seemed to have earned. That’s something we all knew was going to come up at some point, and I’m happy to see that his return has been largely fulfilling.
The first moment we see Rick and Daryl arguing over Rick’s decision to abandon Carol was a sobering one for me. Remember, Carol had been the one that killed the first two people with the virus, and… oh, who cares! Man, I was tired of that storyline, and if we hadn’t had two episodes away from the prison, I think I would’ve been pretty sick of the whole show by now. Sure, the last two Governor-centric episodes may have made the overall arc of the first half of this season a little uneven, but by now the affairs of the prison had become so overdrawn that seeing them all blown away by a tank (rather than worked through with reason or logic or “talking about our problems”) is a welcome relief.