THE WAY WAY BACK. The title refers to the backward-facing third-row seat in a station wagon, which is where our protagonist, 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), sits sullenly in the movie's opening scene. It's a clever, not overly precious metaphor, and a neat encapsulation of this story's tone and intelligence.
Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash rocketed to prominence when they won the 2012 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Descendants (an award they shared with director Alexander Payne). As I understand it, they parlayed that success into financial backing for this movie, a passion project they've long had in the works. Like The Descendants, The Way Way Back focuses on the seams that start to show when a family faces trying circumstances. The script is nuanced and insightful, the characters rendered with great care and sympathy. There's less middle-aged fatalism (I'd attribute that mostly to Payne) and a lot more hope, but one can see that the writing is of a piece, and that Faxon and Rash's success is anything but a fluke.
The station wagon of the opening shots belongs to Duncan's mom's boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). They're on their way, along with Trent's late-teen daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), to spend the summer at Trent's beach house. Duncan's relationship with Trent is strained at best. At the beach, the adults settle into a routine of hard partying with Trent's friends and Steph reunites with her supremely bitchy friends, leaving Duncan with no one.
Eventually he ventures out and befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of the local waterpark, who hires Duncan for the summer. The job and his newfound friends gradually draw Duncan out of his shell, and things start to look up. Meanwhile, the tension inside the beach house, along with Trent's sleazeball behavior and the increasing emotional distance of his mom (Toni Collette), conspire to undo his progress.
The Way Way Back could be called a summer-camp movie, and not unfairly. The structure is familiar and a little predictable, but the movie succeeds in spite — and because — of that structure. By using a template, Faxon and Rash can eschew plot twists and bold strokes, instead really drilling into the interpersonal emotions of the story. Their portrait of family life in disarray is vivid and sad, but not without joy or hope. Ditto their meditation on the interior life of the adolescent male, which James depicts with impressive restraint and subtlety. This is deceptively smart writing: What some will see as "just" a breezy little comedy actually has a great degree of vulnerability and authenticity.
It's still a breezy little comedy, though, with Rockwell delivering many of the numerous laughs. Faxon and Rash are also featured in funny minor roles. One of the best of the universally strong performances comes from Carell, who demonstrates a talent and range that's often absent from his bigger releases. He plays completely against type here and hits it out of the park. Car salesman to the core, Trent is an overt manipulator, a player and a control freak. His interactions with Duncan made my skin crawl, they rang so true.
This won't go down as an instant classic. But its self-assuredness, empathy and intelligence are a winning combination. I look forward to whatever these guys deliver next. PG13. 103m.
THE WOLVERINE. The X-Men have always, even in my days of occasional comic-book collecting, been too gigantic an entity for me to engage with. I've seen most of the movies and I'm familiar with the mythology, but for the most part I keep my distance. The exception is the Wolverine/Logan, a character I've always found interesting. And maybe in spite of myself, I really like the way Hugh Jackman plays him. Plus the trailer for this one is pretty damn cool, so I had reason to think I might like it going in. And I did enjoy it, quite a bit.
The first shot is a slow, hazy pan following a B29 on a bombing run. Turns out it's about to drop an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, on the outskirts of which Logan is being held as a prisoner of war. In the chaos of the bombing he saves the life of a Japanese officer. Almost 70 years later, Logan is living as a recluse in the woods of the Yukon, haunted by his memories, ruing his immortality. The Japanese officer he saved, Yashida, has become a technology mogul. His life is nearing its end, and he summons Logan to Japan, ostensibly to thank him. Things get complicated and action-packed quickly.
The action scenes are the most critical component of a movie like this, and these don't disappoint, from the intense bombing sequence of the opening to a prolonged battle atop a bullet train and through to the satisfyingly destructive climax. Director James Mangold presents an impressively photographed array of fight choreography alongside almost seamless special effects sequences. The result is a handsome, fast-paced, intermittently funny summer blockbuster that puts most others to shame. PG13. 126m.
2 GUNS. So, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are cops, right? And they're, like, both undercover but they don't know about each other being cops. Hoo boy, you can imagine what happens next. R. 109m.
THE SMURFS 2. I'd whine about popular culture's rapid descent into sub-moronic drool puddles, but what's the point? Smurfs 3 is already being made. The game is lost. I'll be over here weeping. PG. 105m.
If you're a movie buff who's never been to Ocean Night at the Arcata Theatre Lounge, dive in this Friday at 6:30 p.m. They're showing Deep Water (2006), a richly compelling and suspenseful documentary about a British man who in 1968 entered an around-the-world solo sailing competition and wound up ... well, just go see it. PG. 92m. On Sunday, baste your children in 1950s gender stereotypes with Disney's Cinderella. G. 74m. And next Wednesday's Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night brings Son of Hercules in the Land of Darkness (1964), an Italian sword-and-sandal throwaway. Doors at 6 p.m.
THE CONJURING. A stylish, old-fashioned creepfest complete with haunted house and exorcism from the director of the first Saw. R. 112m.
GROWN UPS 2. Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock and David Spade embarrass themselves and insult your intelligence. PG13. 101m.
PACIFIC RIM. Giant monsters versus giant robots. Result? Giant awesomeness. PG13. 132m.
DESPICABLE ME 2. Reformed villain Gru (Steve Carell) and his cute little peanut minions get recruited by the Anti-Villain League in this charming animated comedy. PG. 98m.
THE HEAT. Sandra Bullock, as an overachieving FBI agent, and Melissa McCarthy, as a brash, foul-mouthed Boston cop, fight crime in this comedy from the director of Bridesmaids. R. 117m.
RED 2. A group of retired CIA operatives get framed as international terrorists and have to fight back. Starring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins. PG13. 116m.
R.I.P.D. Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds star as undead sheriffs hunting for lost souls in this effects-driven action comedy. PG13. 96m.
TURBO. The latest from Dreamworks Animation imagines a garden snail who longs to be fast. Voice talent from Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti and Michael Peña. PG.
— Ryan Burns