The Way, Way Back (PG-13, 2013, Fox)
Trent (Steve Carell) thinks his girlfriend’s 14-year-old son rates a three out of 10 on the interesting person scale, and while “The Way, Way Back” very quickly provides the means to deduce that Trent probably is a scumbag, it also raises the possibility that his assessment of the mumbling, stammering Duncan (Liam James) may actually be generous. “Back” begins with Duncan and his family, such as it is, en route to a vacation home for the summer, and like most movies set in temporary summer homes and set around teenage boys, its coming-of-age status is marked in stone. What isn’t quite so expected are the likes of lazy-eyed pre-teen ladies man Peter (River Alexander) and the manchild water park employee (Sam Rockwell as Owen) who takes Duncan under his wing while having some extremely funny good-natured laughs at his completely daft expense. Yes, “Back” is a supremely delightful coming-of-age movie by the metrics of coming-of-age movies. It’s happy, sad, clumsy, revelatory and occasionally angry and rebellious. But perhaps more than anything, it’s so consistently funny that it may actually be a better comedy than coming-of-age movie. Being a teenager is awful, wonderful, weird, exciting and, for those looking on who already underwent teenagedom and made it out the other side, wonderfully funny to watch. “Back” captures every facet pretty well, but it crushes that last one, making it a timeless movie teenagers can appreciate right now and continually cherish years from now. Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph and Allison Janney, among quite a few others, also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, four behind-the-scenes features.
The Wall (NR, 2012, Music Box Films)
The notion of being the last person left in the world is understandably terrifying and strangely romantic, and Frau (Martina Gedeck) embodies both extremes without ever even raising her voice. Though invisible to the eye, the wall in “The Wall” is real and impenetrable by foot, high-speed automobile or even sound. And though its perimeter is hard to ascertain due to its invisibility, Frau needs little time to deduce she’s the only person inside, with only her dog Lynx, some wildlife and a pencil and paper to keep her company and perhaps sane. Frau admits as much in her writings, the narration of which “The Wall” uses to illustrate the mindset of a woman who has attained both inexplicable imprisonment and a level of personal autonomy that’s enviably difficult to achieve in this age. Contradictions constantly work in unlikely harmony in “The Wall,” which utilizes showing and telling on separate levels to rather literally guide a story that’s comparably layered in spite of an extremely simple premise and precious little in the way of tangible activity to fit inside that premise. That, translated one way, is a nice way of whispering “nothing happens!” to the crowd that needs that wall to come crashing down or some other grand resolution to occur for these 108 minutes to have been worthwhile. Things definitely happen, but they aren’t things like that, nor is “The Wall” really even about the wall beyond the realization that it exists and dictates everything else that happens. The aforementioned notions and what they represent — to us, while watching, as well as Frau and even Lynx — are more interesting than the things and what they do, and complicated but careful way “The Wall” navigates them means it isn’t a movie for everyone or even most. But what it strives to do, it does beautifully.
Extras: Illustrated photo booklet with essays and a director’s afterword.
The Waiting Room (NR, 2012, Docurama)
In a parallel universe, where the discussion about affordable health care hasn’t been horrifically hijacked by politics, reckless misinformation and the drive to spite politicians instead of fix something that’s very broken, “The Waiting Room” — a document of 24 aggravating hours in the life of the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. — would be a must-see. It is, as one might expect from a compressed picture of an emergency room welcoming 241 patients through its doors in a single day, a mess. Outside of a couple stories that receive extended focus, most of what passes through “Room” is disorganized and extremely narratively unkempt, with many stories comprising a single scene and never seeing a resolution later. But that’s the nature of a day in the ER: Some patients’ problems remain unresolved, some patients will have to continue their treatment elsewhere another day, and some won’t even be seen because of traffic, insurance woes or some other circumstance. Everyone — patients, nurses, doctors — is frustrated and tired for different reasons, and that’s where the cameras come in. For all the ground it cannot cover because of its format, “Room” provides a pretty powerful sample of what’s ailing American health care. Everyone gets a chance to speak without a filter, no side is fully absolved — a scene about a drug addict taking up a bed, among other things, means even patients don’t get off easy — and an issue that’s been reduced to abstract mudslinging gets to show off its human side while the film itself stays quiet and just rolls camera.
Extras: Director commentary, outtakes/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes stories.
Only God Forgives (R, 2013, Radius TWC/Anchor Bay)
Though atmosphere, properly applied, can buy a movie acclaim it otherwise may not deserve, it is not a blank check. “Only God Forgives” brings us to the dregs of Bangkok, where an awful human being named Billy (Tom Burke) murders a 16-year-old prostitute and is himself murdered by that girl’s father, who then is violently punished by a police lieutenant (Vithaya Pansringarm) who has his hands in every pot and dishes out his idea of justice by maiming and killing those he wishes to set right. That brings us to Billy’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies to Bangkok and orders her other son Julian (Ryan Gosling) — also living in Bangkok and managing a muay thai club that fronts a drug smuggling ring — to kill Billy’s killer. That, if we’re using textbook terms, is the plot. But the real story with “Forgives” is its tenor. Extreme violence — typically with cause, disproportionate punishment-versus-crime metrics notwithstanding — are its punctuation. Excessive doses of million-yard stares, slow neck turns, extremely economical dialogue and marathon periods of total emotional numbness where character, script and cinematography alike all brood to near catatonia are what escort us from one exclamation point to the next. The fascination surrounding “Forgives” becomes almost wholly about discovering how sick and cold and empty it gets; whether the near-lifeless husk we call Julian achieves vengeance for an awful excuse of a human being he reluctantly calls his brother is almost inconsequential. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a movie on those terms, because there’s no wrong way to enjoy a movie. But there is no assurance whatsoever that you’ll like the feeling that’s waiting at the bottom of this ocean, nor is “Forgive” the least bit concerned with being understood or even the least bit liked. Say hello to what might be 2013’s most polarizing movie, and dive in at your own risk.
Extras: Writer/director commentary, interviews, two behind-the-scenes features.
As Cool As I Am (R, 2013, IFC Films)
“As Cool as I Am’s” title comes from the film’s opening moments, when high school sophomore Lucy (Sarah Bolger) narrates about the symmetry between a family’s level of dysfunction and how interesting the people in that family are. Naturally, that’s a portent that dysfunction is headed to her home, where Dad (James Marsden as Chuck) is away most of the time because of work and Mom (Claire Danes as Lainee) is restless with regard to how she spends her days and nights. But that little speech also reads like a declaration that no matter how dysfunctional things get, sympathetic well-wishers need not fill out the guest book, because the silver lining is right there in plain sight. Sure enough, while “Cool” heads down some worn-out thematic roads, it walks with a different rhythm than most — never so bulletproof as to be mistaken for irony, but nothing close to soppy or self-pitying, either. “Cool” isn’t even terribly sad even when it is, and not necessarily because Lucy is even all that cool. Like all teens, she’s only as cool as the limits of awkwardness and inexperience allow. But while Lucy doesn’t come out and address those limitations quite so literally as she addresses impending dysfunction, there’s an unspoken acknowledgement that she knows she doesn’t know everything. Regardless of Danes’ star power, “Cool” is Lucy’s movie, it speaks with her voice, and as result, it’s a much more likable movie than yet another story about yet another dysfunctional family might otherwise be.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.
I Give it a Year (R, 2013, Magnolia)
There is some payoff waiting at the end of “I Give it a Year,” most acutely with a single declaration Nat (Rose Byrne) lobs toward an in-law that will make her the envy of many who wish they could say the same thing to an in-law of their own. More generally speaking, there’s a lightly pleasing and amusing general payoff to the story as a whole — which, for those who care about the happiness of Nat and Josh (Rafe Spall), is probably the least “Year” could do. But for those who care about Nat and Josh, one question: Why? A funny quirk about misunderstanding song lyrics aside, Nat achieves little beyond mild likability, and she fares better than her husband, who is too bland to muster even that level of support. “Year” hits and misses as a dry comedy, but it has next to nothing to say as yet another story about marriage that begins too cynically to end anywhere else. Like most cynical comedies that cannot help themselves, “Year” gets confused and funnels some clumsy grabs at optimism and soul-searching through supporting characters and the usual last-grasp changes of heart. It isn’t all in vain — if only because it gives us someone (Anna Faris as Chloe) to genuinely like and root for — but it certainly doesn’t save “Year” from overcoming the mediocrity that swallows its two leads and spits out a marriage that shouldn’t matter to us if it barely matters to them. Stephen Merchant and Minnie Driver also star.
Extras: Deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes feature.