It’s not that The Way, Way Back is a bad film. But it really brings nothing new or interesting to the table. The film tries to succeed as a poignant coming-of-age tale, but really just feels like an exercise in dishonest nostalgia. Nearly every scene in this film is crafted in such a way as to glorify the motivations of its brooding, pure-at-heart teen protagonist, Duncan (Liam James), who I must admit is such a bland presence that I couldn’t even remember his name as I wrote this a day later. At all times, the film embraces his perspective, and while the awkwardness and pain of his dysfunctional family situation play with a modicum of plausibility, the details just seem a bit too perfect, like Duncan is the unreliable narrator spinning this particular yarn. Was his mom (Toni Collette) really this much of a doormat? Was the mom’s boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) really this much of a monster? Was the genial water park manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) really this hilarious and likeable? Did Duncan really win the respect of some neighborhood hooligans (as well as the preposterously on-the-nose nickname “Pop’n’Lock”) in a dance contest scene right out of the 1980s?
Many of the performances above (with the exception of the lead) were quite nuanced and interesting, particularly that of Carell. But at no point does the film shake the sense that it’s just trying way, way too hard- whether to be a better coming-of-age dramedy like Adventureland, or at least a more interesting one like The Spectacular Now. And I doubt that’s the kind of nostalgia that The Way, Way Back wanted me to experience.
FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10
In the world of James Wan‘s The Conjuring, ghosts and demons are real, all of this was based on a true story, and Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are a couple of well-meaning, true-believing, honest-to-God ghostbusters with actual powers to vanquish genuine supernatural phenomena. For some reason, the film’s insistence on its own historicity initially rubbed me the wrong way more than usual, perhaps because we almost immediately get a scene in which Ed and Lorraine have a discussion alone together, and we the audience learn that yes, they really do believe that they’re vanquishing demons. But the film’s lack of interest in questioning the credibility of the real-life “experts” is matched by its interest in establishing them as interesting characters.
In the end, what makes this movie work so well is not just Wan’s well-developed sense of how to construct a taut supernatural thriller, but Wilson and Farmiga’s performances and credible, long-term affinity – both for each other, and for the important work that they believe they’re performing. By the time the film ends, when Lorraine insists to Ed that God brought them together for a reason, it has earned the audience’s credence that the couple genuinely believes this. Their faith, for lack of a better word, is inspiring, even if the “true story” is bewitching, fictitious nonsense like any good haunted house story.
FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
I began my review of the thoroughly underwhelming first Hobbit film by questioning the need for its existence. But by the time the franchise’s equally lengthy second entry was near, I had not only come to terms with its existence, but I was weirdly, horribly excited for it. Whether the music, the 48fps 3D, the non-canonical addition of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a brand new elf-maiden named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), or the intense, shouty dude (Bard the Bowman, played by Fast and Furious 6 villain Luke Evans), something about this trailer got me right on board for it, and by and large, the film is a far superior entry to its predecessor.
It is still problematic in a number of ways. The dwarves – with the exceptions of Thorin (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Stott), Bombur (Stephen Hunter), and newly crowned heartthrob Kili (Aidan Turner) – remain interchangeable and undifferentiated as ever. The film’s insistence on sending away Gandalf (Ian McKellan) to fruitlessly poke at the mystery of the Dark Lord Sauron’s inevitable return is a complete waste of time – and when the film dispatched a septuagenarian wizard to the top of a mountain for a meeting that lasted literally two minutes, I couldn’t help but wonder if it knew exactly what the hell it was doing.
But this film did a lot of things right – by and large, it managed to make me believe it was making real progress toward telling a complete story. The action setpieces hung together much better this time. Everything surrounding the elven realm in Mirkwood – from the arachnid craziness on the way in, to the white-water rafting ride on the way out – was a ton of fun. And don’t let anyone tell you that Bowling With Bombur is any dumber than Legolas single-handedly dispatching an oliphaunt in Return of the King. Sometimes, a film just has to go a little crazy for the kids, and this sequence completely succeeded. As for the dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), I don’t have a lot to say, except that it was all very well-rendered, the scale of the sequence was impressive, and it ended with a bizarre thud. Despite an impressive performance by Evans, none of the Laketown sequence was well-established enough to make the stakes of the film’s ending (i.e. the town might soon be destroyed by a dragon) matter to me in the least. All it really made me do was lament the film’s criminal misuse of Stephen Fry, who is doing little more than a half-baked impression of Lord Denethor of Minas Tirith.
It would be easy for a non book-reader to look at the preceding paragraph as complete gibberish. And yet, this seems like a good time to point out the patent hypocrisy in many of The Hobbit films’ detractors. They criticize Peter Jackson in one breath for cynically inflating a 300-page children’s book into a meandering trilogy of films, and in the next, they can’t stand the notion of well-established characters from the existing Lord of the Rings universe stepping in to help round out the runtime and storytelling a bit. For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed the inclusion of pre-Gimli, dwarf-racist Legolas (and Evangeline Lilly feels like she was born to live in Middle Earth). But more importantly, I cannot and do not accept the notion that fidelity to half-remembered source material from one’s preadolescence is an intrinsic good. Are these bad films? Quite possibly. And feel free to blame Jackson and his team if you think so. But blame them for being poor screenwriters, not poor adapters. Because no matter how these films turn out, no one will come to your house and take away your dog-eared paperback copy of the source material. And we might just get something halfway entertaining out of this before the end.
FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10
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