Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Rated: PG-13

Stars: Liam James,  Steve Carell,  Sam Rockwell,  Toni Collette,  Maya Rudolph,  Annasophia Robb,  Allison Janney,  Amanda Peet

Director: Nat Faxon,  Jim Rash 

Genre: Comedy/ Drama  

When I was fourteen, I avoided speaking  to adults--they were just too uncool. In my case, that wasn't just some warped teenage perception. Adults really weren't very cool back then. In The Way, Way Back, fourteen year-old Duncan (Liam James) is a similarly withdrawn kid, surrounded by some modern day adult lamesters.  Until he arrives at the beach house where his divorced mom (Toni Collette) and her condescending ass of a boyfriend, Trent, (Steve Carell) and his teenage daughter will be spending at least part of the summer, trying the blended family experiment on for size. 

At the beach house, Duncan is introduced to a more colorful ilk of of freaky folk. Allison Janney, as Betty, is a scene stealer as one of the funniest female drunks in recent memory. Then there is Owen, (Sam Rockwell) manager of the  Water Wizz amusement park, where Duncan is drawn when he finds an old bike in the garage and cuts out on the sappy grown ups. He gets hired on at the park, and Owen--an overgrown adolescent stuck in class clown mode--is the ideal mentor to help Duncan, in the shadow of that giant water slide, to emerge from his shell. 

The Way, Way Back is a coming of age tale with a familiar plot,  though it doesn't completely span that outhouse to penthouse emotional arc. The ending they opted for is a more thoughtful one that may leave some viewers feeling deflated, but reflecting on it, this is a movie about incremental rather than sweeping change.   

Steve Carell plays against type in yet another role. He may be dissatisfied with just being a comic genius,  feeling that he's been typecast, maybe? This turn has a bit more depth than the totally deadpan psychiatrist he played in Hope Springs, (a  waste of his talents, in my opinion) but if he really wants to be known as  a serious actor, he needs to take on roles that are way more challenging than this.

Maya Rudolph conveys a sweet vulnerability as Owen's main squeeze at the water park. She strikes me as a surprising choice, but their chemistry works. 

Toni Collette, as Duncan's mom, is a woman who lacks the necessary self-esteem to dump the asinine Trent, even in the face of his infidelity. 

Funny, endearing, poignant. The Way Way Back is all of that. At the end, I felt like I had just spent the summer with some truly memorable characters. And like Duncan, I kinda hated to leave. 

 Grade:  B  +


The way Tim and I work this joint reviewing is simple. He writes his review first, sends it to me via email, and I then add my two cents. (Or three? Or four?) I always wait nervously, fearing he will make the exact same comment I was planning to make. In effect, stealing my insightful thunder. Luckily for me, it hasn't happened. Until now. And we aren't exactly on the same page here.

We both agree that Steve Carell's character in THE WAY, WAY BACK is a departure from previous roles. Unlike Tim, I was impressed with his performance as an A-1 a-hole. Most comic actors—from Charlie Chaplin to Eddie Murphy—have a likablity factor that makes playing villains an uphill battle. Kudos to Mr. Carell for carrying it off! I did have a bit of a problem with Sam Rockwell's character going from perpetual teenager to romantic lead. (Okay, that's stretching it a bit.) And I also though the screen writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash could have come up with a snappier title than THE WAY, WAY BACK. ("Endless Summer, Pt. 2"? "Hell in the Hamptons"? Even "Water Wizz" would have worked better in my view.)

I've given the last two films an "A." So I really can't do it a third time although I'm tempted to. If I'm being totally honest, it's not so much because the movie deserves it. It's just that I am filled with gratitude that this movie isn't yet another comic book rip-off for the mindless minions of kids on vacation. I did exit the theater feeling a bit more sympathy for those teenagers steeped in gawkiness rather than gangdom.


Saturday, July 27, 2013


Rated: PG-13

Stars: Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave, Gemma Arterton, Christopher Eccleston

Director: Paul Andrew Williams

Genre: Comedy/ Drama/ Musical 

Arthur (Terence Stamp) is a cranky old Brit.  He's cranky with his wife, Marion, (Vanessa Redgrave) who is in ill health and not long for this world. And he's especially cranky with their son, James,  (Christopher Eccleston) a rather hapless sort who needs to be prodded to come and sit with his mother while Arthur tends to other things. Arthur and son don't get on with each other-- they've never really been that close, apparently, but there is no background provided on why that might be. 

Marion, in her waning days,  is a member of a senior citizen glee club led by Elizabeth, (Gemma Arterton) a perky young woman who thinks it's cute to get them to sing hi-hop and other semi-modern songs like, "Let's Think About Sex" (baybeeee) and have them do the robot. We learn next to nothing about her though, except for the one time when she gets weepy about a broken relationship. 

The pensioners are all sort of cute in their ineptness, as one and then another gets carted away after pulling or straining something.  And while they have lots of on-screen time, they are all just extras, really, because besides Marion, none are even partially developed as characters. And therein we have the main flaw of Unfinished Song--the lack of character development (other than the shining performances of Stamp and Redgrave)--providing and unintended irony to the film's title. 

In the beginning, the plot centers around Marion's stiff upper lip in the face of her terminal diagnosis.  When she passes on, Unfinished Song becomes Arthur's story--a tale of redemption in how choir director Elizabeth gradually brings him out of his shell to get on with the business of living--getting involved with the choir himself as they prepare for a big competition they've been invited to participate in.

There will be plenty of moist eyes in the theater when the emotionally manipulative Unfinished Song  is finished. The most effective films manipulate you, but you don't mind because what they're doing isn't all that obvious and it takes you by surprise--like a marionette performance where you don't notice the strings.  In Unfinished Song, however, those strings are clearly visible.  

Grade:  B --


For me, one of the most highly satisfying things in life is when you suddenly hear a favorite oldie on the radio – a song you used to play over and over again in your youth. Well that happened to me in UNFINISHED SONG. Emotionally manipulated or not, Billy Joel's "Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)" has been one of my all-time favorites since it first appeared on the scene in his album titled 'River of Dreams" (1993). After seeing UNFINISHED SONG through "moist eyes," I went home and promptly got on YouTube to uncover the story of what motivated Joel to pen such an incredible masterpiece. According to him, he wrote the song for his daughter who was six at the time. It was his way of answering that age-old question all kids ask their parents at some point: "What happens when you die, Daddy?"

As for UNFINISHED SONG... Here is my prediction: Terence Stamp will garner an Oscar nomination for his stellar performance. He's played some interesting characters in previous films (from a transsexual in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to an English vigilante in The Limey). But his role as an unlikeable/likeable curmudgeon in SONG is by far his most challenging to date. I realize it's early to be talking Academy Awards. Still. There's always one early release every year that offers viewers a tour de force on film. (Inglorious Basterds was released nine months before voting began and even then we all knew Christoph Waltz would walk away with a Best Supporting Actor award.) Speaking of which, I'd also give "Lullaby" a Best Song Award. Only it probably won't qualify since it wasn't written specifically for this film.


Sunday, July 7, 2013


Rated: PG-13

Stars: Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear,  Tata Vega,
Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen,  Mick Jagger, Chris Botti,  Sting,  Lou Adler

Director: Morgan Neville

Genre: Documentary/rockumentary 

So close and yet so far. 20 Feet From Stardom  chronicles the careers of several backup singers--including Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Claudia Lennear, and Tata Vega--who were prominent  within the music industry, but virtually unknown to the general public. Unknown, that is, until you realize you've been singing along with them for a good portion of your life.  As in Clayton's visceral duet with Mick Jagger on "Gimmie Shelter,"  or Darlene Love's unheralded lead on some of the hits that were credited to The Crystals. 

Darlene Love, of course, was the backup who beat the odds, and she is the central figure in  20 Feet From Stardom.  It was a long and bumpy road,  fraught with setbacks, on her way to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. There are other notable exceptions here too, such as Sheryl Crowe and Luther Vandross. Others, supremely talented in their own right,  eventually embarked upon solo careers, but for whatever reason--luck, timing, fate--never achieved that elusive stardom they were seeking. .

The beauty of 20 Feet From Stardom is that one minute were gaining insightful information about music history from Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger (our first totally wrinkled rock star) and Chris Botti--and the next moment the theater is rockin' with archival concert footage from the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles.

We even get to see the mad genius himself,  Phil Spector,  at work back in the day. And while maybe their story didn't exactly fit here, I was hoping to at least get a glimpse of The Ronettes. After all, The Ronettes records WERE the Phil Spector sound in all of its thundering glory. (But I won't deduct any points for that.)

Simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking, 20 Feet From Stardom is a film I will eagerly see again. It's the kind of flick you want to tell your friends about, and then take them to the theater with you to groove on their reaction.  If you love soul...if you love rock....this movie will knock your socks off. 

Hell, it will blow you clean away. 

Grade:  A


Darn. Here I go again, agreeing wholeheartedly with Tim. I knew from the minute I entered that movie theater I was going to experience something special. Why? Because the place was packed with people at the 11:10 morning show on a sunny Saturday in La Jolla, California. I figured if those folks were willing to give up surfing for singing it had to be a winner flick.

And it was!

Back in the 60s, when I was a professional songwriter in New York City, I distinctly remember using Gloria Jones on some of my demos (i.e. demonstration records made of acetate before CDs were even invented!). They don't mention it in 20 FEET FROM STARDOM but those backup singers made good money singing on demos. In fact, some equally talented vocalists worked exclusively as demo singers. But I'm getting off track here... This movie not only offered music aficionados a behind-the-scenes look at how a star is not born. It also gives you insights into what it takes to become a solo act.

(Like my dad used to say, "I'd rather be lucky than smart.") I absolutely loved the superstars' comments about their back-up singers. They know full well how important those doo-wahs are when it comes to creating hits. If I had to point out a flaw in this fantastic documentary, it would be from a totally personal point of view. Watching these hotties age before my very eyes—gain weight, moles and wrinkles—was a downer. Nobody is ever gonna convince me that wisdom outweighs beauty...

Grade: A