10/22/13: The Way, Way Back, The Wall, The Waiting Room, Only God Forgives, As Cool As I Am, I Give it a Year

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.

10/15/13: Pacific Rim, Herman's House, The Heat, Ghost Team One, League of Super Evil

Pacific Rim (PG-13, 2013, Warner Bros.)
“Pacific Rim” has Godzilla-sized monsters and Megalon-sized mechs, and perhaps monsters and mechs are all it needed to reign supreme over this year’s weak field of summertime movies. But the monsters aren’t simply monsters: They’re Kaiju, and they’re complicated biological creatures with their own logic and lore. Nor are the mechs just mechs, but Jaegers operated by two human pilots whose thoughts and memories meld in the service of wielding their massive vessel’s single mind. On both sides and in between, in terms of the big species picture, the individuals who comprise it and the wild future Earth on which they do battle, the mythos runs exponentially deeper than a monster-versus-mech movie is obligated to go. Pretty much every facet of “Rim” follows in kind, too. That mythology produces some terrifically entertaining characters in place of the generic archetypes who could have steered this thing, and the versatility of those characters provides “Rim” with occasion to be funny and sweet in addition to action-packed. Lest there be any confusion, “Rim” IS action-packed, and that action looks as awesome as a big-budget 2013 movie about monsters and mechs fighting on land and at sea should look. That, of course, remains the top priority. But the kudos cup runneth over for that rare action movie that does so much so well that action feels like an ingredient instead of the whole recipe, and kudos to “Rim” for showing its mostly moody, bloated summer 2013 contemporaries how it’s done. Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day and Ron Perlman, among others, comprise a stellar ensemble cast.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, 14 behind-the-scenes features, director’s notebook, bloopers.

Herman’s House (NR, 2012, First Run Features)
In the land of messy documentaries that kneel at the mercy of forces beyond their control, “Herman’s House” is, if not king, somewhere nearby in the throne room. “House” unofficially begins in 1972, when prisoner Herman Wallace, convicted on questionable grounds of murdering a correctional officer he says he did not kill, is moved to solitary confinement. That’s where Wallace remained, 31 years later, when artist Jackie Sumell discovered his story, befriended him and conceived an art installation that incorporated both the design of his dream house and a facsimile of the tiny, windowless room in which he’d spent nearly every hour of his life since being convicted. The success of the installation, along with mounting pressure to reopen Wallace’s case, led to a wild plan to turn concept into reality and build the dream house for real in the event Wallace is exonerated, and it’s in the eye of that endeavor where “House” largely takes place. And what a storm it finds itself in, too. “House’s” setup has everything it needs to check every box on the “triumph of the human spirit” checklist, and in an alternate universe, a glossier movie may have run down that list and left it at that. Here, by contrast, is a reminder that stuff like this takes work, that work isn’t glamorous, nothing’s as easy as it should be, setbacks are inevitable, success is not no matter how pure the intention, intentions aren’t always pure anyway, and even if you do everything the right way and don’t have people pulling the rope in different directions every step of the way, there remain things that lie completely and thoroughly beyond your control, and those things almost certainly aren’t all going to go your way. How’s that for a checklist? “House” does a nice job of getting us personally acquainted with both prisoner and artist on their terms and through their words, but it’s the illustration of a pursuit that has a mind of its own — and the reminder that wanting to do good is the first step in the endurance run required to actually do good — that makes it a standout.
Extras: Deleted scenes, director interview.

The Heat (R/NR, 2013, Fox)
She’s (Sandra Bullock) a stuffy, roundly disliked FBI agent sent to Boston to bring down a drug kingpin. She’s (Melissa McCarthy) a foul-mouthed, roundly disliked street cop who will wreck anybody, FBI included, who gets in the way of her interrogation of a small-time dealer who just so happens to report to that kingpin. Together, they’re a tandem as predictably disparate as they are predictably destined to become best friends, because isn’t that how these things always go? It is, “The Heat” is no different, it couldn’t care less about being different, and it’s by the grace and brute force of Bullock (as Ashburn), McCarthy (Mullins) and a supporting cast hungry to keep up that it does not matter one single little bit. In terms of comedy-by-numbers storytelling, “The Heat” stays inside the lines, with the usual turns — odd couple-isms, fish-out-of-water-isms, that awkward bucket dump of sappy character growth that precedes the inevitable act where it all works out — all very overtly present. Even some of the gags and lines feel stale on the surface. But if McCarthy wasn’t already the best in the game at taking a mundane line, dropping in mundane swears and somehow turning it into comedy gold, her work here puts her in the running and probably the lead. Put Mullins in another actor’s hands, or give Ashburn to someone who can’t shift from prude to crazy cat lady and back on a dime like Bullock can, and the same script might make one wonder why “The Heat” even exists. But this is why casting directors exist, and if casting was an Oscar category, “The Heat” might be winning that race as well. But it isn’t, so the honor of being one of 2013’s funniest movies will have to do.
Extras: Commentary tracks (from cast, crew and the “MST3K” guys), unrated cut, deleted/alternate/extended scenes, seven behind-the-scenes features.

Ghost Team One (R, 2013, Paramount)
Like seemingly every other movie character still hauling a camcorder around, Sergio (Carlos Santos) is convinced — albeit via a discovery he made while extremely drunk at his own house party — that there’s a ghost in his house. Sergio’s best friend and roommate Brad (J.R. Villarreal) is in no way convinced, but when a partygoer (Fernanda Romero as Fernanda) is revealed as both interested in ghosts and extremely attractive, he finds a way to convince himself he’s convinced. Their other roommate Chuck (Tony Cavalero) hates both of them, Brad’s might-be girlfriend Becky (Meghan Falcone) is just kind of there with her dog (who also hates Sergio and Brad), and there’s your sort-of starting five for Ghost Team One. Not exactly the ’96 Chicago Bulls, but for purposes of making fun of both found footage movies and ghost stories — “Paranormal Activity,” in other words — it more than suffices. It should be noted that “Ghost Team One,” to its great credit, isn’t simply a parody of those movies, nor is making fun of those stale gimmicks even its best asset. Had “Activity” and its terrible sequels never even existed, Sergio would be no less a terrifically likable lead, Brad no less an endearing scumbag, and Chuck no less a meathead so hilariously detestable that he maybe steals the show. “GTO’s” sense of humor about its subject material is an asset, but its characters are the reason to watch, and its script — rich equally in overtly perverse insanity and brilliantly-delivered throwaway lines — recognizes this to divinely juvenile effect. No extras.

League of Super Evil (NR, 2009, Flatiron Film Company)
By the metrics of painting with broad strokes, “League of Super Evil” dishes out its color on a brush big enough to clean a five-lane highway. But that’s only a problem if that isn’t the intention, and the frantically animated “Evil” — led by a pint-sized not-so-super villain, Voltar, whose cries of “eeeevillllll!” are frequent enough to qualify as ambient noise — is nothing if not one with its intentions. “Evil” follows the escapades of a band of wannabe villains, and as perhaps you could guess from one look at the cute visual style, their ability to dish out evil is about as successful and malicious as a puppy nibbling his littermate’s ear while she attacks him back with a clumsy swat of her paw. Most of them aren’t even evil so much as just along for the adventure, which works out fine given how often these acts of evil, even when executed to perfection, harm pretty much nobody. First, foremost and beyond all else, “Evil’s” mission is unapologetic silliness, and it fulfills that mission with a dizzying blast of energy that starts caffeinated, ends caffeinated and never crashes in between. That will, of course, appeal to kids. But “Evil’s” brand of crazy is a smart and funny kind of crazy, making it one of a resurgent breed of cartoons that knows how to keep both sides amused on separate terms.
Contents: 52 episodes, no extras.

10/8/13: Resolution, Curse of Chucky, Ingenious, After Earth, The Hangover Part III

Resolution (NR, 2013, Cinedigm)
There probably are better ways to pull your friend from the clutches of methamphetamine addiction than to dodge his gunfire, tase him and tie him up in a squatted cabin smack atop a Native American reservation. But this is the road taken by Mike (Peter Cilella) to save Chris (Vinny Curran), who is, paranoia about birds stealing his things and propensities to fire his rifle just because notwithstanding, a man who may possibly listen to reason. Remarkably, amid a fast start that establishes Chris as potentially insane before it establishes any single other thing, “Resolution” still conveys this possibility of reason. The grace with which it skates around this and other tricky edges is all it needs to command total confidence in its endeavor to tell a no-frills but engrossing story about two friends, one crummy cabin and the acute hell standing between Chris’s present condition and his ability to see the light Mike sees for him. So some measure of bonus points is in order for “Resolution’s” ability to keep riding that edge while a mysterious audio recording leads it down a wholly separate, genre-hopping path that should change everything but somehow — amazingly or exasperatingly, take your pick — does not. It’s best not to give away what “Resolution” becomes, because in addition to turning a buddy drama into something else entirely, it also doesn’t necessarily change anything at all. We are, for the most part, kept in the same boat in which Mike and Chris find themselves, and their mission doesn’t necessarily change even when everything else kind of does. Fair warning right now for the neat-and-tidy-ending-that-explains-everything crowd: “Resolution” doesn’t have one. But the sheer volume of stuff it leaves behind and leaves audiences to ponder and argue about is as integral to the experience as the 93 excellent minutes that take us there.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, filmmakers interview, outtakes/deleted footage, introductions to the film, parody videos.

Curse of Chucky (R/NR, 2013, Universal)
“It’s a doll. What’s the worst that can happen?” The line is so overtly daft and wink-laden, one almost expects this to be the point where the “Child’s Play” saga finally goes all the way and just drops in a laugh track. Chucky’s gotten married, become a father and bullrushed beyond horror, past self-aware and into full-blown dark comedy territory, so what else can he really pull nine years after his last stunt? Turns out, it’s an upset, because amid all the flat reboots, remakes and comebacks that produced countless 21st century shadows of 20th century horror classics, it’s this one that finds a way to rise to the occasion by not only reasserting its place in the annals of actual horror, but by somehow also folding all that preceding craziness into a timeline that’s stunningly attentive to the tenets of fan service and storyline continuity. “Curse of Chucky’s” first half plays it unsettlingly straight, almost as if to mimic a reboot that’s severed all ties to its past. But as the fresh-faced Chucky literally peels away the grafts hiding his trophy case of scars from past films, “Curse” does the same with a wild weaving of its present mess into the scary and funny messes that piled up over five preceding movies. Plot holes are inevitable, as are the leaps of faith “Curse” occasionally asks fans to take in the service of what it’s trying to do here. But the effort is so commendable, and the payoff so outrageously devoted to its mission, that going along with it is no favor to ask.
Extras: Cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, storyboards, bloopers.

Ingenious (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
A cynic might deduce that Lions Gate pulled the four-year-old “Ingenious” — the dramatized story of the invention of the novelty talking beer opener and the two friends (Renner as Sam, Dallas Roberts as Matt) who endured a trail of bad ideas, bad luck and broken relationships to bring it to market — out of movie purgatory because one of its stars, Jeremy Renner, is now an actual star. And a cynic would probably be right about that. As for why “Ingenious” was stashed away for so long before marketing saved it, theories abound. It could be the delving into Matt’s gambling problem (or rather, the film’s odd ability to alternate between applying melodramatic pressure to the problem and kind of brushing it off), or it could be the so-large-it-arguably-IS-the-plot subplot of Matt and wife Gina’s (Ayelet Zurer) marriage and the toll his dreams and failings take on it. It could be “Ingenious’s” trouble with balancing moods, managing time or finding a way to reconcile its loving ode to trailblazers and inventors with the creation of a beer opener that says a goofy phrase when it pulls the cap off a bottle. Not exactly the polio vaccine. All balled up, “Ingenious” is an altogether likable movie with two likable leads, one reasonably likable spouse and a supporting cast (Marguerite Moreau, Richard Kind, Judith Scott) ranging from pleasant to rotten in a way that nearly registers as polite. But it’s a likable movie that feels continually stuck in some stage of misalignment, and it’s a story that plays like a true story with all the sharp edges and fine details sanded away and simplified. In other words, it’s the prototypical forgettable movie, which likely is why its studio forgot about it until money on the table jogged its memory.
Extras: Behind-the-scenes feature, interviews.

After Earth (PG-13, 2013, Sony Pictures)
Imagine signing Peyton Manning to do anything with a football but throw it, or commissioning Salvador Dalí to do anything with a sheet of canvas but paint on it. Now imagine hiring Will Smith to appear in your movie and supply anything but his charisma, or just check out “After Earth” and see exactly what it looks like. As “Earth” begins, humanity is a millennium past abandoning Earth, which has, despite looking rather lush here, became too toxic for humans to endure. (Animals, it seems, got along just fine and even evolved to kill humans on sight despite there being none to see.) There’s obviously more to it than that, including a new planet and a combative alien race with a tricky but gaping weakness. But it’s best to leave something for “Earth” to introduce, because once Cypher (Smith) and Kitai’s (Jaden Smith) ship crash-lands on Earth and leaves Cypher incapacitated and the terrified Kitai to find the rescue beacon that can save them, there’s precious little else for it to do. As implied earlier, “Earth” is visually striking. But it’s also strikingly calculated, with the younger Smith alternating between fearfully mugging and belting tearjerker speeches into his radio while Dad returns fire with all the heat of a wet match. If the goal was for Will Smith to set a nepotistic stage for his son’s Oscar reel, it backfired magnificently. Cypher’s dreadfully boring, Kitai’s obnoxious, and a computer-animated bird outshines both by an embarrassing margin in terms of conveying humanity in the face of adversity. Had “Earth” followed that bird instead of the straight line connecting two sides of this mostly non-story about two mostly non-characters, it may have gone somewhere worth going. Sadly, like the rest of us, she had better things to do than stick around to see this one ends.
Extras: Alternate opening, six behind-the-scenes features.

The Hangover Part III (R, 2013, Warner Bros.)
Following the first in a surprisingly large series of scenes in which animals die awful deaths, “The Hangover Part III” concocts yet another excuse for our four non-heroes (Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha) to go on yet another ill-advised trip. When things quickly go awry, it’s due to a callback to events from the original “Hangover.” This both follows and precedes scenes in which the characters talk about moments from “The Hangover,” it eventually leads to a return to the “The Hangover’s” host city of Las Vegas, and gosh you guys, remember how great “The Hangover” was and how much you loved it? This needless sequel to the needless sequel that preceded it sure does, and it effectively operates on the notion that if you remember enough times how much you enjoyed that original movie all those many (four) years ago, you’ll forgive this (hopefully!) final chapter for having next to nothing to offer beyond a striking level of nostalgia for a film from 2009. “The Hangover” is the crutch on which “Part III” leans for dear life, but it’s also its worst enemy, pressuring it to outshock its predecessors and accidentally turn its pack of likable imbeciles into scumbags whose stupidity and bad behavior have grown too exaggerated and tiresome to entertain like they once so easily did. John Goodman, Melissa McCarthy and — of course — Ken Jeong also star.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features (some real, some fake), extended scenes, outtakes, action mash-up.