A boy breaks out of his shell and comes of age in the good-hearted dramedy “The Way, Way Back”


In The Way, Way Back, the writer/director team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the outlandish dean of TV’s “Community”) deliver a charming coming-of-age story centered on a teenage boy named Duncan (Liam James). Duncan goes away for the summer with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her insensitive boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and Trent’s snooty teen daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan is a shy, awkward teen and his summer quickly becomes one of dread and loneliness as everyone else around him seems to fit right in with their carefree, summer atmosphere.

Growingly frustrated, Duncan eventually goes out to explore the world around him more and comes upon Owen (Sam Rockwell)—a fast-talking slacker who runs a nearby water park. Through Owen’s carefree influence, Duncan loosens up a bit and his shell begins to break open as he discovers a bit of happiness (and a job) at the water park. He even manages to open up a bit to a cute girl next door named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

While we’ve seen this plot many times before—awkward kid comes of age—and although The Way, Way Back doesn’t exactly touch on any new territory in the subject, Faxon and Rash’s screenplay nonetheless brought a smile to my face from beginning to end. I ended up finding in it a refreshing bit of “slice-of-life” fresh air that is needed during these summer months of big, loud popcorn movies. The last summer “little” film I can recall that charmed me as much was Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” a few years ago.

James fits the role like a glove and makes you care about his character and his plight. The cast is overall superb. Collette is excellent as always here as Duncan’s suffering mom and Carell was nicely cast against type. The film also features notable work by a scene-stealing Allison Janney as Susanna’s loopy (i.e. drunk) mom, Maya Rudolph as a frustrated co-worker/potential love interest for Owen, and Rash has a small, amusing role as a down-trodden fellow park employee.

But aside from James, the standout by far is the immensely talented (and underrated) Rockwell. Rockwell completely shines here as the irresponsible but highly likeable Owen. You can easily see how a character like Owen would play such an influence on Duncan in terms of opening him up to the world around him. It takes an Owen type to do it, and Rockwell embodies the charisma to an absolute tee. As a “recovering” Duncan-type myself, I was sentimental and a bit envious that I never ran into an Owen to help me break out of my shell back when I was coming of age. It’s also perhaps because of that relatability that I found The Way, Way Back such a joy to watch.

Overall, The Way, Way Back is a funny and pleasant winner of a film. It’s been promoted in the media as from the studio that brought us Little Miss Sunshine and Juno—and it fits nicely alongside those films as a being another little “indie” that audiences should make it a point to see.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

About The Way, Way Back:

A socially awkward 14-year-old boy reluctantly goes on summer vacation with his mother, her overbearing boyfriend and her boyfriend’s daughter. Having a rough time fitting in, Duncan breaks out from his loneliness and forms a friendship with Owen, the carefree manager of the Water Wizz water park.

For more on The Way, Way Back, visit the Fox Searchlight Web site or the film’s Facebook page.

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The cold, inhuman nature of the Internet is exposed in the riveting drama “Disconnect”

disconnectIn director Henry Alex Rubin’s involving ensemble drama Disconnect, we follow the lives of several people in three distinct story threads—all with the commonality of how the Internet affects the real human connection and compassion that people can have toward one another.

In one story, we meet two prankster teens: Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein). Both boys end up targeting a fellow classmate named Ben (Jonah Bobo)—a kind-of emo recluse—for a heartless prank: they invent a fictitious girl on Facebook who likes Ben. Ben’s father, Rich (Jason Bateman), is an attorney who spends the family dinner focused squarely on his phone and his job.

In the second thread, we meet Nina (Andrea Riseborough)—a local TV reporter who attempts to do a story on a teen Internet sex model named Kyle (Max Thieriot) and expose the seedy world of online child pornography.

Lastly, there’s Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgard)—a young couple who recently lost their baby, which leads Cindy to find solace in a personal chat room with a man who lost his wife. The couple’s fragile, uncommunicative marriage leads to more troubles when their identities are stolen on the Internet—quite possibly from Cindy’s online chats.

All three stories interconnect in some way—and all of them engaged me from beginning to end. It’s heartbreaking to see and realize just how cold of a force the power of the Internet can have on people’s lives. All Jason and Frye had to do to destroy a classmate’s life was all through the power of social media (we hear on the news from time to time about real-life online pranks and bullying among teens). Instead of truly wanting to save a young man from a life of degrading himself online through pornography, Nina sees first the glory of a story that can land her on CNN. And rather than deal with their grief together, Derek turns to online gaming while Cindy expresses her emotions in a chat room with an unknown man.

The entire cast is excellent here and the stories provide a great dramatic challenge for all involved. It’s nice to see Bateman take a stab at a more dramatic role versus the usual comedies he’s featured in. Patton is sympathetic as a young mother in deep mourning who yearns to talk to her distant husband.

Overall, the film reminded me a great deal of director Paul Haggis’ 2005 film Crash—a polarizing film to many, but one I found compellingly excellent for its high emotion and multi-layered stories. Similar to Crash, when the stories of Disconnect were about to reach their emotion-filled conclusions, I was near breathless during each one.

For an engaging and riveting drama about the lives of people affected in one way or another by the lack of emotional and real-human connection on the Web, Disconnect comes highly recommended and it will surely be a film you won’t soon forget.

4 out of 5 stars

About Disconnect:

Disconnect is a multiple-story drama revolving around a group of people searching for human connections in a modern and overly Web-influenced world.

For more on Disconnect, visit the official Web site.

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Five-star trailer: “Before Midnight”

Before_MidnightIn 1995, Richard Linklater’s romantic indie drama Before Sunrise was released. Starring then-twenty-somethings Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine—two people who meet on a train in Europe and spend an evening together in Vienna—it didn’t seem like the kind of film that would spawn, nine years later, a sequel: the bittersweet Before Sunset. And now, another nine years later, comes a third film in the “Before” series: Before Midnight. Like Sunset, this one was penned by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy — and based on early buzz and reviews from Sundance, Midnight sounds all kinds of perfect.

Before Midnight is scheduled to be released in theaters in the U.S. on May 24. If you have never heard of the “Before” films, love little indies and don’t mind your films on the “talky” side, then you have plenty of time to check out Sunrise and Sunset. I never would have thought I’d be following this couple from their 20s, to their 30s and now on to their 40s when I first saw Before Sunrise in the 1990s, but I look forward to seeing what happens next in their relationship in Midnight.

Check out the trailer for Before Midnight here:

And the trailers for Before Sunrise…

and Before Sunset:

About Before Midnight:

We meet Jesse and Celine nine years on in Greece – almost 20 years has passed since their first meeting on that train bound for Vienna.

Check out more on Before Midnight on Facebook and on the Sony Pictures Classics website.

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OSCAR SPOTLIGHT: My rankings of the Best Picture nominees


Just in time for the Oscar ceremony on Sunday, February 24, I managed to watch all nine films up for the Best Picture prize. One can’t exactly say what was genuinely the most worthy film for Best Picture without having seen all of the films up for the gold, after all. Now having seen all of them, I can now proudly attest to how I would rank this year’s crop of nine up for the Academy Award for Best Picture (going from “least” Best Picture worthy to most):

Les Mis9. Les Miserables

Director Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables boasts two Oscar-nominated performances out of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. Although I wasn’t a big fan of some of Hooper’s shot choices during certain scenes and I feel he may have took the term “musical” a little too literally (I can barely recount a moment in which someone doesn’t sing), Les Mis still is a worthy effort and Jackman and Hathaway are of course exceptional here. Considering the subject matter, I guess you could say I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t draw me in emotionally as much I was expecting it to, but nonetheless Les Mis is a good film. Not great, but still good all the same.


8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

So a much different kind of “Ben” was called out as a Best Director nominee than the one I was expecting to be named on the morning the Oscar nominations were announced. Instead of a certain Ben Affleck, the nominee was one Benh (with an “h”) Zeitlin for the very small indie Beasts of the Southern Wild. Even more of a surprise was young Quvenzhané Wallis earning a nomination for Best Actress. Upon seeing the film, I can see why Zeitlin and Wallis got nominated, as Beasts is a uniquely told film about a young girl’s plight in “the Bathtub,” a southern Delta community, and how she comes to learn the ways of courage and love at an extremely young, fragile age.


7. Zero Dark Thirty

Speaking of surprise omissions, it was highly expected that Kathryn Bigelow would earn her second nomination for Best Director from the Academy, this time for her get-Osama bin Laden-thriller Zero Dark Thirty. Surprisingly, she didn’t earn a nomination, which is a shame because Bigelow very much deserved a nod for her masterful direction in Zero. Star-on-the-rise Jessica Chastain earned a Best Actress nomination for her work here as Maya, an immensely determined CIA operative out to get the most-wanted terrorist in the world. Like The Hurt Locker a few years back, Bigelow produced a gripping drama in Zero and it was definitely one of the best of the year.


6. Lincoln

Enough can’t be said about the wonder that is Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in Lincoln. He just is Abraham Lincoln here. His performance is flat-out awe-inspiring and he’s a virtual shoo-in for his third Best Actor Oscar (for which he’d be the only actor in history to achieve such a feat). And with the legendary Steven Spielberg (a frontrunner for Best Director) at the helm, Lincoln was far from being a stuffy, Civil War-era historical drama. The entire supporting cast (including Supporting Actress nominee Sally Field) is also excellent here, especially Supporting Actor nominee Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.


5. Amour

The Academy usually relegates foreign-language films to the Best Foreign Language Film category, but they made an exception this year by including Michael Haneke’s French drama Amour in the Best Picture category. It deserved to be included in the bigger category. The story of the film—a couple’s bond of love is tested when the wife’s health begins to dramatically deteriorate—is heartbreaking for sure, as are the remarkable performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Best Actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva. Riva’s performance is absolutely extraordinary and incredibly worthy of the Oscar. Riva’s 86th birthday, it turns out, falls on the exact date of this year’s Oscar ceremony. The Academy may very well give her a very golden gift for her birthday. Amour is a truly unforgettable film that will grasp at every human emotion you can possible feel about what it means to love and the absolute fragility of the passage of time.


4. Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actor Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper—I didn’t think it was possible, but Cooper achieved this title with his performance in David O. Russell’s dramedy Silver Linings Playbook. As a man who completes a stint in a mental institution, Cooper is fantastic and shows a good amount of range here. The absolute revelation, however, is the talented Jennifer Lawrence. Earning a Best Actress nomination, Lawrence is awesome here as a widow with problems of her own. Lawrence goes above and beyond what the role calls for, which goes to show her immense talent, and considering her age it makes her all the more amazing to behold on the screen. Supporting Actor nominee Robert De Niro co-stars as Cooper’s football-loving dad. Linings is a fantastic film.


3. Django Unchained

There’s no stopping the mad genius that is Quentin Tarantino. With his latest, Django Unchained, Tarantino does it again with this highly entertaining “western” about a freed slave (played by Jamie Foxx) who joins forces with a German bounty hunter (Supporting Actor nominee Christoph Waltz) to set out to rescue his wife from a brutal plantation owner. Although Leonardo DiCaprio makes a worthy villain here (and it was nice to see him play against type), it is indeed Waltz who very nearly steals the show from star Foxx (although it could be easily argued that Waltz is a co-lead with Foxx). Another worthy supporting player was Samuel L. Jackson as a diabolical slave. Tarantino simply does no wrong and Django is just another excellent film for him to add to his immensely unique resume. Here’s hoping Tarantino nabs the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, because he’s very deserving of it.

Life of Pi

2. Life of Pi

Ang Lee is one of the most diverse directors out there today. From Sense to Sensibility to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to Brokeback Mountain, Lee’s resume shows incredible range. With Life of Pi, Lee achieves what many were saying no one could ever achieve: direct a (presumably) un-filmable film. Starring Suraj Sharma as a young man who survives a disaster at sea and undertakes an epic, coming-of-age journey of adventure and discovery, Life of Pi is an absolutely breathtaking (visually and emotionally) movie experience. If Spielberg doesn’t nab the Best Director prize, I’d expect Lee to be the one to take it for his latest drama. Pi is one of the finest films of the year, and clearly couldn’t have been made possible if it wasn’t for the masterful vision of Ang Lee.


1. Argo

When Ben Affleck was robbed a Best Director nomination for his third directorial effort—the based-on-a-true-story thriller Argo­­—many rallied around his film and the injustice of his snub. I saw Argo for a second time at the theater and I too join in on how very wrong the Academy was about Affleck. Affleck steered his CIA drama to absolute perfection and told an incredibly engrossing story about a CIA agent (played by Affleck) who risks it all to come up with a way to extract six fugitive American diplomats out of revolutionary Iran in 1980. The operation: come up with a fake movie as a cover.  I was so drawn in by the story and the urgency of it all. You feel for these people, you feel for Affleck’s Tony Mendez and his unyielding determination to get them home. The suspense of it all as everything played out was nearly too much for me (in a good way). Thrilling, absorbing and so masterfully done from beginning to end, Affleck’s Argo is indeed the Best Picture of 2012. Hands down.

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OSCAR SPOTLIGHT: Best Actress nominee Naomi Watts fights to survive in the harrowing true story “The Impossible”

impossible_ver5Naomi Watts is an actress that will never disappoint. From her acclaimed Oscar-nominated turn in 21 Grams, to recent films such as Fair Game, Mother and Child, Eastern Promises and The International, Watts is one of the best actresses out there. She particularly gained notices back in 2001 for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (a film, I’m ashamed to admit, I have to yet to sit down and watch). Overall, there’s always a bit of prestige attached to a film when Watts is featured in it. After a nine-year absence from Oscar’s radar, she’s finally back to the ballot this year—this time for her work in director Juan Antonio Bayona’s powerful true-story drama The Impossible.

In The Impossible, Watts plays Maria Bennett, wife to Henry (Ewan McGregor) and mother to three young sons. The film takes place in 2004 and the Bennett family is spending their holidays in Thailand. In the opening of the film, we see the Bennetts enjoying their holiday and their family time together – but what would soon result would change their lives (and the lives of thousands of others) forever. A merciless tsunami crashes through the holiday resort the Bennetts are staying at and devastates everyone and everything in its path. Bayona’s portrayal of the tsunami’s awesome force and brutality is so horrifyingly real. The whole sequence of Mother Nature’s catastrophic events will absolutely take your breath away and tug at every ounce of humanity in your being.

Bayona does not tiptoe around or sugarcoat the physical toll the tsunami had on those who struggled to survive through it. Watts’ portrayal here as she is battered through the tsunami is heartbreaking—not only as she struggles to stay alive but also as she harrowingly fights through it all to protect her son, Lucas—the one son she was able to reunite with when the disaster first sweeps through. Young actor Tom Holland portrays Lucas and he is excellent here and ends up carrying a great deal of the film with Watts. As a young boy who, in an instant, has to mature far beyond his years as a result of the tsunami’s devastation, it’s unfortunate that Holland didn’t get a notice from the Academy as well.

Searing and unforgettable, The Impossible tells one of the most remarkable true stories of human tragedy and hope as a result of Mother Nature’s forces. With strong performances by Holland and a very deservedly Oscar-nominated Watts (McGregor’s performance is also very worthy of mentioning), The Impossible was one of the finest films of 2012. I’m not certain Watts will walk away with the Oscar come February 24 (odds are more in favor of Jennifer Lawrence or Jessica Chastain), but her nomination was well earned and it would only be a matter of time before the Academy awards another nod (and hopefully an eventual win) her way.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

About The Impossible:

A true-story account of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the devastation of one of the worst natural catastrophes of recent time.

For more on The Impossible, visit the film’s official Web site.

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The Academy loves “Lincoln” and “Playbook,” but where’s Affleck?!


So the nominees for the 85th Annual Academy Awards were announced bright and early this morning—and boy were there some surprises! Here are the nominees and my quick take on what the Academy has gone and done this year…

Best Picture:



“Beasts of the Southern Wild”

“Django Unchained”

“Les Miserables”

“Life of Pi”


“Silver Linings Playbook”

“Zero Dark Thirty”

–> No huge, huge shockers here, really. It’s nice to see the Academy was all for “Django” (but then again, they didn’t mind Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” one bit a few years ago). A surprise omission of note might be “Moonrise Kingdom,” which many loved and yet failed to get a nod from the Academy. And it looks like the Academy wasn’t about to do a “make-up” nod and include “The Dark Knight Rises” here (after they hugely snubbed “The Dark Knight” a few years ago). Also, many thought the Academy would go crazy for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” but apparently Academy members checked out of it early and didn’t give it a nod here. As the leader in nominations, I’m thinking “Lincoln” might be declared the best film of 2012 (although the love for “Silver Linings Playbook” in the directing and all four acting categories makes me think that it could pull off a surprise).

Best Supporting Actor:

Alan Arkin, “Argo”

Robert De Niro, “Silver Linings Playbook”

Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Master”

Tommy Lee Jones, “Lincoln”

Christoph Waltz, “Django Unchained”

–> As Emma Stone pointed out during the nomination presentation, all of these actors have won an Oscar already (in De Niro’s case, two Oscars). I was hoping for a surprise nod to go to Samuel L. Jackson for “Django Unchained,” but Waltz got in instead (and deservedly too). A big snub also has to be the always excellent Javier Bardem, who got overlooked this year for his villainous (and highly entertaining) turn in “Skyfall.” So one of these five men noted above will have yet another Oscar on his mantle by the end of the night. My early educational guess: Tommy Lee Jones for “Lincoln.”

Best Supporting Actress:

Amy Adams, “The Master”

Sally Field, “Lincoln”

Anne Hathaway, “Les Miserables”

Helen Hunt, “The Sessions”

Jacki Weaver, “Silver Linings Playbook”

–> The surprise nod of the bunch has to be Jacki Weaver. Many didn’t see her coming, but she’s playing the type of supportive motherly character that the Academy loves in this category (and plus it’s a complete 180-degree turn from her role a few years ago in “Animal Kingdom,” for which she was nominated for as well). A surprise omission is Maggie Smith for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”—many thought the Academy would get all Maggie crazy and throw an easy nod her way because of her popularity on TV’s Downton Abbey. All the buzz is that Hathaway already has this Oscar in the bag (side note: Amy Adams may be the new Kate Winslet—she’s on her fourth nomination but unfortunately she’s a longshot for a win this year).

Best Director:

Michael Haneke, “Amour”

Ang Lee, “Life of Pi”

David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook”

Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln”

Benh Zeitlin, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

–> Umm, Ben Affleck? Kathryn Bigelow? Not just one huge (and I mean huge) snub in the director category, but two?! I hope Christopher Nolan has their numbers on speed dial to tell them, “yeah, I’ve been there guys” (coughInceptioncough). No idea what could have happened here. Their “dueling” CIA dramas cancelled each other out somehow? Affleck’s omission stings most because the poor guy has directed three stellar dramas in a row—and here he directs a critically adored and audience-embraced thriller that’s based on a true story (!) and yet he still can’t get Academy love for directing? You know, to welcome him to the big table of actors who can direct incredible pieces of film? Wow. Just WOW! With “Lincoln” leading in nominations, I’m thinking Spielberg will earn another (well-deserved) Oscar for best achievement in directing.

Best Actor:

Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook”

Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”

Hugh Jackman, “Les Miserables”

Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master”

Denzel Washington, “Flight”

–> Despite his very vocal disinterest in the Oscars and the “competition” for the gold, Phoenix landed in the top five all the same. This was essentially a six-man fight for five slots. The loser? Surprise snub: John Hawkes for “The Sessions” (and despite a very Oscar-baity role). It would have been nice to see Richard Gere sneak in for his excellent work in the little-seen “Arbitrage.” But, alas, with a race so crowded this year, he couldn’t sneak in. Then again, barring some kind of big upset, one man pretty much has this locked up for the win: Daniel Day-Lewis. He is Abraham Lincoln in this film, for crying out loud!

Best Actress:

Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty”

Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”

Emmanuelle Riva, “Amour”

Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Naomi Watts, “The Impossible”

–> So the Academy wanted to set two records this year: the oldest ever Best Actress nominee (Riva) and the youngest (Wallis). Surprise snub has to be Marion Cotillard for “Rust and Bone.” It’s nice to see Watts in here (with only her second nomination? They can’t be serious!?). Buzz is it’s a two-woman race between Chastain and Lawrence. But by seeing how the Academy snubbed Bigelow for director and have David O. Russell in for “Silver Linings Playbook” instead, I almost want to say Lawrence has the edge. With nods for picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress, the Academy is clearly head over heels in love with “Playbook” and they may want to award someone for it. Lawrence is a revelation in it and could very well be that certain someone.

For a complete list of all the Oscar nominees, visit the official Oscar Web site.

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Ang Lee directs the genuinely moving and visually wondrous “Life of Pi”

In director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, a man named Pi (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan and as a teen by Suraj Sharma) tells the story of how as a teenager he spent 227 days adrift at sea on a lifeboat after the freighter him and his family were in sinks into the ocean. But he wasn’t alone—Pi ended up on the lifeboat alongside another survivor: a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Life of Pi can easily be compared to the film Cast Away with Tom Hanks—a miraculous story of survival against all odds. Like Hanks in that film, Life of Pi relies on the sole actor on the screen to carry the film and draw an audience in to their plight. Newcomer Sharma is remarkable here as the teenage Pi, and it’s because of his strong performance that we full-heartedly experience Pi’s journey along with him—his triumphs and his doubts. What makes Life of Pi so gripping is that it’s essentially a coming-of-age story—a young man’s journey through his life and to figure out what it all means—the meaning of faith, in particular.

Based on the best-selling novel, many who read the novel considered itunfilmable” when it came to the idea of a film adaptation. But leave it to masterful Oscar-winning director Lee to succeed at the task all the same and deliver a visually inspiring and deeply involving motion picture. Lee uses 3-D here in ways in which the medium is meant to be utilized—not just for show, but to exhibit visuals to bring about emotion and feeling on a deeper level. Pi’s “water world” is absolutely stunning through Lee’s lens. Without question, the film is impressively beautiful and I’m not talking about just the visuals of it all.

But wait just a minute—is all of this even possible? A young man would survive out in the ocean as he did? Not only that, but alongside a tiger? Do we have the faith in us to believe? This is what the film asks of us—and it’s up to you to decide for yourself what to believe in.

Life of Pi is not only a visually extraordinary film, but a remarkably involving and incredibly moving experience. It’s one of the finest films of the year and it’s a film I won’t soon forget.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

About Life of Pi:

A young man survives a disaster at sea and struggles to survive through an epic journey of adventure and discovery. While cast away, he forms a surprising connection with another survivor: a formidable Bengal tiger.

For more on Life of Pi, visit the official 20th Century Fox Web site.

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