The Way Way Back

It used to be that you couldn’t throw a rock in a video store without hitting a coming-of-age movie. The saying is still true but now you’d be throwing a rock at a Redbox which is easier to do but less satisfying somehow. There’s hundreds of “teenage boys trying to figure out life movies” so what separates The Way Way Back from the anonymous herd? The answer is Sam Rockwell.

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The Way Way Back stars Liam James as Duncan who is summer vacationing with his mom (Toni Colette) and her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Maybe I didn’t grow up in the right area or in the right income level, but it has always baffled me how a family will vacation for the entire summer. Nevertheless, Duncan’s future step-dad proves to be an amazing jerk within the first five minutes of the movie. They arrive at their summer home and he is introduced to the wildly grating next door neighbor played by Alison Janney. Old friends of Trent’s arrive and soon Duncan finds himself surrounded by caricatures. The early scenes mean to play up the fact that Duncan is shy, withdrawn, and socially awkward, but if I found myself surrounded by these people I would be the same way.

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The fun begins when Duncan catches the interest of the manager of a water park played by Sam Rockwell. The always under appreciated Rockwell is hilarious without being over the top and brings a liveliness to the movie that is sorely lacking elsewhere. There is no life to the other characters. They are one-note at best and Duncan’s family members are off-putting to say the least. The scenes of Duncan’s home life are unnecessarily dour. I understand that they are meant to be juxtaposed with the fun scenes at the water park, but there is no need for the brutally awkward family time. Not every moment of a kid’s home life can be awkward, even for an awkward kid. The scenes that don’t take place at the water park feel like they’ve had the life sucked out of them and downgrade what could have been a really good film. The water park scenes are pretty great though. Duncan learns to navigate life during his time at the water park and slowly comes out of his shell. You could even say that he comes-of-age in this touching coming-of-age film. I’m not sure that I was ever touched during the runtime but the fine folks at Fox Searchlight would like you to believe that you could be touched by this story. I suppose it’s possible. If this is your first coming-of-age movie you will likely be touched. If not, all bets are off.

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Out of the Furnace

There are a wealth of wonderful performances in Out of the Furnace. They deserve a better plot. To the film’s credit there is a brutal realism that dictates the action. The problem is that we can see the action coming from miles and miles away. This is a realistically based revenge film and I’m not positive who the audience for that is.

Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, a mill worker in Braddock Pennsylvania who is just scraping by. He has a girl that he adores and a steady job which is all he can ask for. His brother Rodney, played by Casey Affleck, is a four tour Iraq veteran with undiagnosed PTSD who is having extreme difficulty managing a mundane existence. Russell’s life gets sidetracked by a drunk driving incident and while he’s inside Rodney gets involved with small scale underground fighting and pushes his way into a match with New Jersey rural mountain men. It is obvious from the very beginning where Rodney’s fate is taking him and it is equally obvious where Russell is going to go in retribution.

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Christian Bale brings a small town weariness to the role that is both subdued and layered. He understands that he is living just to get by and he is ok with that. He also perfectly encapsulates what it means to feel like you need to be your brother’s keeper. Casey Affleck is electric in his supporting turn and has a wild despair in his eyes that makes you believe in his personal torment. Both actors are believable at every turn and give performances that are worthy of a better film.

Willem Dafoe skims the fringes of the story and is welcome in his scenes as is Sam Shepard as the Baze brothers’ uncle. The standout supporting role is Woody Harrellson’s psychopathic, meth shooting, inbred, fight kingpin. Harrellson chews scenery as if he gets paid by its destruction. He brings a spark to an otherwise dour affair and it is welcome each and every time.

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Out of the Furnace has some strong ideas and brilliant performances. If only it got out of its way and either became the social commentary it starts as or the revenge thriller it ends up as.

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Before Midnight

Before Midnight doesn’t have the same idealized romantic tone of the first two movies in the series, but it still manages to enrapture an audience with nothing more than talking. Before Sunrise had a youthful verve with the kind of romance only that only comes around at that age. Before Sunset revisited the characters nine years later when they were a little more equipped to deal with their feelings even though their adult lives had begun. The film ends with Jesse considering abandoning his life in America, including his wife and son, to stay with Celine in Paris. Before Midnight takes place nine years after Sunset and deals with the ramifications of that decision.

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Jesse stayed with Celine and they now have twin daughters together. The film finds them finishing a summer vacation in Greece where they have been the guests of an aging writer. The wistful longing from Sunset has been replaced by the bitterness of a life lived together. Where Sunrise and Sunset were about making a connection, Midnight is about trying to hold that connection. Life is unforgiving and it’s much harder to maintain a relationship rather than hold onto the feeling you get over a romantic two days over the course of nine years. Sunset’s nostalgia and longing are now regret and resentment. That is not to say that this is a bitter, cynical, or negative film. There is still love, although for the first time, there is a life around that love and life is never as pretty.

I don’t want or need to say much about the plot. Fans of the series will be familiar with the way the story is presented. There are ridiculously long takes where you just see people talking, although, for the first time there is a dinner scene where other characters share the screen. This is a chance to catch up with Jesse and Celine 18 years after we met them. I am enamored with the beauty and realism of this film as I have always been with this series. I admit to being unsure how this film would play to someone that hasn’t seen the first two, but I hope that this review will encourage even just one person to seek out this magnificent series. It continues to be one of my favorite series in film and although Before Sunset remains my favorite entry, Before Midnight is a worthy continuation of the story and I urge everyone to take the time to seek out this story of love and life.

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Oldboy

Your enjoyment of Spike Lee’s Oldboy will hinge almost exclusively on your knowledge of and fondness for the original. I did not expect to like this remake due to my love for Chan-Wook Park’s original and I was pleasantly surprised that it was not a train wreck. Be that as it may, my surprise at the non-awfulness of it wore off rather quickly and what was left was a middling sense that I hadn’t seen anything new. Spike Lee has made a well-crafted film which looks gorgeous, but ultimately falls flat for anyone that knows it’s a remake.

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Oldboy stars Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett, an advertising executive with a fondness for alcohol and womanizing. After a deal goes bad Joe gets heavily liquored up and wakes up in what looks to be a hotel room. The gravity of his situation doesn’t set in until he realizes that he can’t get out. The door has no handle and is locked from the outside. There are no windows and there is no phone. A tray with food and vodka is slid through a door slot for meals and all human contact is cut off. He is kept in that room for twenty years with only a TV to keep him company. He awakens in a trunk in the middle of a field after all that time with a wallet full of money and a cellphone. His captor calls the phone and asks Joe to answer three questions: Who is he, Why did he kidnap Joe and lock him up for twenty years, and why did he let him go? Thus begins Joe’s quest for answers and revenge.

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I cannot divorce myself from my familiarity with the original Oldboy and Spike Lee hasn’t given me any reason to separate the two. Lee’s version is not bad, but that may be because it is an extremely faithful retelling of what was already a great story. Lee tries to copy some of Park’s visual panache and does manage to create a visually compelling film, however, he never makes it his own. Audiences that haven’t seen the original may enjoy this immensely, but for those that have it will depend on your willingness to watch what you’ve already seen. If nothing else, I hope that newcomers to Lee’s film will eventually seek out the superior original.

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Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club is intensely emotional and delivers some of the most harrowing performances of the year. Matthew McConaughey continues his career resurgence out of the circle of rom-com hell he was in and mesmerizes with his lived in portrayal of a hard living good ole boy that contracts HIV in the 1980’s. McConaughey dedicates himself to the role with reckless abandon and looks every bit the part of a man on the brink of death. He disappears so completely into the character that any movie star vanity vanishes and all that’s left is a deeply flawed man trying to survive in a world that doesn’t care about him. This is an outsiders tale and gives a voice to those society would rather leave behind.

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McConaughey stars as Ron Woodruff, a Texas electrician/rodeo rider who is immersed in a world of drugs and sex and only thinks of AIDS as, “that faggot disease.” He is well liked if not exactly respected and is surrounded by like-minded individuals. This is a culture that does not welcome differences nor change and any outliers will be met with violence and ridicule. A workplace accident results in Woodruff getting a blood test that comes back HIV positive. There is of course a stage of denial then he starts to accept and research. What follows is the story of a man clinging onto hope after he has been cast aside and left to rot with the riff-raff he so vehemently opposed. Woodruff begins to realize that the FDA may not be acting in the best interests of the patients and begins scheming with foreign medicines to distribute drugs to AIDS patients. His partner in the newly minted “Dallas Buyers Club” is Rayon, a transsexual who gives him unexplored access to the gay community. A timid friendship is formed between them as both struggle with holding onto whatever health they can get amid a sea of red tape and FDA regulations that could keep possible medications from them. Health is a rich man’s game.

Jared Leto has long fascinated with his choice in roles and is remarkably picky. As the lead singer of the highly successful rock band 30 Seconds to Mars he has the luxury of only picking roles that speak to him. Leto clearly believed in telling the story of Rayon and is alternately beautiful and heartbreaking in every scene. There are many moments involving Rayon that will stay with me forever. It is a tragic character and Leto makes it memorable in every frame.

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Dallas Buyers Club affected me deeply. Those of us that have witnessed someone fade both emotionally and physically from a fatal illness will recognize the heartbreak surrounding these characters. This is more than an AIDS story. This is a story about those who are told that there is no hope. Even more so, this is a story of those that are struggling to live in a society that has written them off as dead. Their story deserves to be told and Dallas Buyers Club does that job admirably.

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Frozen

Frozen is delightful from beginning to end. It will enchant you no matter your age and leave you wanting to stay in that magical place that only a top notch Disney film can take you. This is a return to the special films that Disney used to make and I encourage audiences of all ages to seize the opportunity to behold the wonder it can deliver.

Elsa and Anna are princesses to loving parents with the slight inconvenience that Elsa was born with magical ice powers. She has the ability to control the cold and the sisters use it to their full advantage by making any room a winter playground. All is well until an accident threatens the younger Anna and it is decided that they will hide Elsa’s powers from the world. Elsa hides in her room and cuts off the world. As befitting a Disney story the King and Queen are tragically killed and the sisters are left on their own. Elsa will be Queen even though she does not know how to control the power she was born with. While Elsa is trying to hide away from the world Anna is feeling smothered by the reclusiveness of their new lifestyle. As must happen, an accident occurs and Elsa endangers everyone by creating an eternal winter then fleeing to the wilderness to escape the consequences. It is left to Anna to find her sister and bring an end to the icy landscape.

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Kristen Bell voices Anna bringing an previously unknown beautiful singing voice to the table. Bell’s singing numbers are spectacular and she seizes every song with passion. Opposite her is Idina Menzel as Elsa. Menzel is a longtime musical theater veteran and makes her songs soar as only someone of her caliber can. Supporting turns from Jonathon Groff and Josh Gad are also exquisitely well done. Gad in particular is stellar in his comedic role as a snowman brought to life that has a fascination with heat. There are no missteps in the voice work with every role filled with warmth and realism.

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The best Disney films always employed a musical theater approach to the story by letting songs enhance the plot and characterizations rather than serving as pop music interludes. Frozen does this wonderfully. Each song feels integral to the story with every subsequent number adding layers to the whole and enriching the world around it. Disney has scored a massive hit with Frozen and this one will be cherished much in the same way that Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast are today.

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