Bad Words


Release: Friday, March 28, 2014


When a child uses choice language around the house, they run not from their parents, but rather away from the bar of Irish Spring they know will soon be in their mouth. The expression ‘I am going to wash your mouth out with soap’ may be timeless, but it’s never quite the deterrent parents think it should be, because. . . . . let’s face it. Most of us grow up, become well-adjusted and live a long life of swearing our asses off. Not really, but hopefully the point has been made.

Harmful (i.e. ‘bad’) words are an inescapable commodity, and most of us at some point have used them, maybe even aimed them at people we are nearby or perhaps talking directly to. But why did we use them — was it out of frustration? Or were we dropping the f-bomb because we were so thrilled about something? Did we not like the way we were being treated so we assaulted those who caused us pain with colorful and spiteful language? Context and intent is everything.

Jason Bateman decides to exploit these concepts in Bad Words, his directorial feature debut. Starring as the film’s definitive anti-hero, a 40-year-old miscreant named Guy Trilby determined to become the nation’s best speller, Bateman knew in order for the material to reach its highest comedic potential he would have to step in front of the camera as well. He could not have made a better move, for his performance is unquestionably the best work he’s ever turned in. By a mile.

Every action he makes and every word he hisses at those around him is a calculated effort of a possible sociopath in the making. Just because he doesn’t swear all of the time (even though it’s still a lot of the time), it’s to whom he speaks and throws insults and the timing of his actions that really matter. His masterful understanding of social context and a person’s ability to mask their intentions are chief among the many reasons Bateman deserves much credit. In this performance, he does his best to make us not like him but damn it he’s still too great to not (quietly) root for when truths eventually do become revealed.

Bad Words epitomizes situational comedy, or at least comes extremely close. Turn to any number of scenes in which Guy is a physically dominant opponent. We’re not talking about NBA basketball here, we are watching The Golden Quill Spelling Bee competition. As a full-grown adult, he’s in the wrong place and not only does he realize this, he doesn’t care. He wants to be the best at something, and knows he is also competing well within the rules. (A technicality based on a graduation date allows him to participate.)

There’s an equal number of scenes in which his intellect goes virtually unmatched by his diminutive, prepubescent competitors. He’ll try anything to gain an advantage, and I do mean anything. Thanks to Bateman’s incredibly funny and self-deprecating performance, Guy Trilby turns out to be a man with an alarming lack of morality; a conscience so twisted he’ll expose one of his ten-year-old rivals to his first pair of real boobs (to prove they all have nipples) before he offers up an honest answer to his journalist travel buddy, Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) about why he’s committing himself to this spelling bee. He maintains no kid will be a match for his sky-high I.Q.

You might think this guy is a complex character reading this review, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. Bateman’s dedication to keeping things simple, but earnest, crafts Bad Words into a better picture than it might have been in the hands of a director just coming off the high of directing an epic superhero film, or a director whose own lofty ambitions often run away from them. It’s what makes the character better, too. Guy Trilby has one thing to prove, and that’s. . . . . . .well that’s a spoiler. One gets the sense there is a deep pain he is hiding; when the truth is revealed we know it’s a basic, fundamental issue but it completely fits. The development proves to be great debut screenwriting from Andrew Dodge.

Despite things maintaining a straightforward procedure, that’s not to say the movie lacks interest. Bad Words instead allows its low-key status to enhance character’s presences, especially with how they are introduced. En route to the competition, Guy encounters what he initially considers the world’s most annoying brat, an Indian boy named Chaitanya (Rohand Chand). Eventually this inquisitive and impossibly intelligent kid destroys his ill-begotten misconceptions via a series of misadventures they both share during the final rounds of competition. Chaitanya is, inexplicably, looking for a friend in this obnoxious 40-year-old and the two have a bit of fun before they must get down to business. . . and spell the hell out of some words.

Bateman may take a fairly predictable route, and the final rounds of this highly unusual competition make for a foregone conclusion. Such are the traits of a film created by an accomplished actor turning his attention towards a new aspect of filmmaking — there are growing pains. Fortunately, as predictable as some of the routes are they can’t be called completely safe. That is certainly one word that does not apply here, as the proceedings often take a turn to the dark and depressing. One thing we’re not going to feel in this sitting is safe — at least, not with Bateman’s character lurking around. But that’s a good thing.

For all of its rushed third act and its many foreseeable developments, Bad Words is a thoroughly entertaining comedy that doesn’t slip nearly as much as other debut attempts have in the past. (I am not Guy Trilby so I won’t call these people out by name.) It is a laugh riot in a number of scenes, surprisingly heartwarming in others and is a great example of an actor successfully bridging the gap between acting and directing.


4-0Recommendation: Bad Words is intelligent, raunchy, insulting and touching, often in the same scene. It is a film of an impressive quality that often beckons comparisons to Bad Santa. Is it any coincidence the two share the same first word? Methinks not. But in all seriousness, yes. This movie, it’s pretty much the shit. Go see it. And no, it’s not nerdy if you find spelling bees interesting. That’s why I saw it. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “Your chair called me for help. . .it’s like help me, it’s so heavy.”

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Mr. Peabody & Sherman


Release: Friday, March 7, 2014


Here’s a newsflash: Rover is a really boring name for a dog. You should get creative and name yours something crazy and endearing, you know, like Mr. Peabody. Or whatever suits your fancy.

Put thick nerdy glasses on it, too, if you want. Just don’t expect the pup to transform itself into the brainiac, time-traveling father-figure that audiences will come to know and love in Dreamworks Pictures’ Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Yes, it is possible for old dogs to learn new tricks. It’s probably not even that much of a stretch to imagine a really good trainer being able to teach a dog a thing or two about algebra, perhaps even physics. We’ve managed to make them speak our language. . . What’s next, dogs graduating at the top of their classes as valedogtorians? (I can’t take credit for that pun, it’s in the movie.)

All of this is still less ridiculous than the concept of a dog raising a child, yet these are the kinds of possibilities we are presented with in this fanciful adventure comedy from the director who brought us The Lion King.

Sherman (voice of Max Charles), abandoned by his parents at a very early age, was discovered in an alley one rainy night by a passing dog, a dog who had never managed to find himself an owner and was getting very lonely. Apparently feeling in a generous mood, a federal judge granted Mr. Peabody the right to take care of and raise the child. This is a responsibility he would take extremely seriously, making sure Sherman grows up to be an intelligent, sensible boy who stays on the straight and narrow. He wants Sherman to be just like him, except without the paws.

Because he looks after the boy so intently, his childrearing skills have caused Sherman to be a bit of an oddball. During his first day at school he is teased by a mean girl, Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter) when she learns of his unorthodox upbringing. Feeling cornered, Sherman takes a leaf out of his father’s book and sinks his teeth into her arm in self-defense, an act that would then draw the principal’s attention and that of a nasty woman from Child Services, Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney). In case any adult in the audience was thinking the same, the movie does indeed address the concept of a dog raising a child. We are left to make up our own minds whether the role reversal works. It is indeed a comical idea, at the very least.

Over the course of 90 minutes this endearing but undeniably oddball pair go on many a wild adventure using what Peabody has called his latest invention the WABAC (“way back”) Machine, a device that allows them to travel back in time to any point in history they want to visit. When Penny and her parents come over for a dinner one night in an effort to patch things up between the two kids — thus eliminating the need for Child Services’ intervention — Sherman disobeys his dad’s orders to not show anyone the time travel machine, and they shoot back into the days of ancient Egypt, where the fun jumps into hyperdrive.

Meh. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. But this moment does mark a beginning, a point in time where later we might actually remember what was attractive about this movie. The general set-up and story is fairly generic and nothing that will be chatted about excitedly afterwards (unlike some as of late that have become the trendy thing to talk about). However, the time travel element of Mr. Peabody & Sherman diverts our attention away from the conventional aspects more often than it highlights the weaknesses. A pit-stop in Renaissance Era-Italy serves as a highlight, where we get to see the “real” behind-the-scenes of Da Vinci’s painting of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ watch Sherman testing out the very first airplane prototype, and experience the first of many little arguments Sherman has with Peabody, who seems to be going from protective father to overprotective nuisance with each scene that passes.

All while this epic trek is happening we are trying to get back to the original timeline, before Sherman makes the mistake of showing anyone the WABAC, and just after the Peterson’s arrive for dinner. Peabody hopes that all tragedy can be avoided if they can just make it back home safe and at the right time. Of course, if they jump back to that time they will create their own doubles, which will prove to be problematic when it inevitably happens. This is a side effect Peabody had warned of when using the time traveling machine. You can’t blame him too badly, though; he’s a dog that’s basically one-upped Einstein. So there are kinks and flaws in his newfangled contraption, but come on. Stop pretending like this is confusing. . . . .

There is a great deal of heart to it, and even despite all of the interesting scenarios we find our intrepid voyagers getting involved in, the ultimate experience is ironically bereft of the intelligence quota that is suggested by the character of Peabody. A fiercely intellectual animal is stuffed into a movie with fart jokes and lame sight gags as its sales pitch. A good deal of the joke-telling not aimed at kids becomes repetitive and was never very strong from the beginning. But the little ones should find themselves with plenty to do as they analyze ridiculously animated fat people, thin people, famous icons, and of course, the requisite fart jokes and sounds. In essence, it’s nothing like the segment from The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show from the late 50s/early 60s.

If Peabody’s science is meant to be cutting edge, then the product he’s now featured in is a pretty dull blade. Like, plastic knife bad. While the animation is often humorous and perpetually beautiful, this isn’t quite the breath of fresh air as something like (yes, I’m going to have to reference it again) The Lego Movie, where entire families will have something to feast on for the duration; no, indeed this is one for the kids. Apparently they still think you owe them one, even after you took them to that most rare of animated films.


2-5Recommendation: Kids may forget it possibly quicker than their chaperones. Its hardly a replacement for the segment that aired so long ago (titled Peabody’s Improbable History) but also somewhat disappointingly, Mr. Peabody & Sherman doesn’t surpass even modern animation standards as it features rather lazy writing and storytelling. It has an interesting gimmick but the rest is nothing but predictable, even if there is a lot going on. It certainly won’t be the worst idea to take the family to this, but it’s pretty likely there’ll be much better family outings as the year progresses.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “All sons have had some issues with their parents. Odysseus was going to be left stranded at home. Ajax was going to be in a Greek chorus. And Oedipus. . . . you do not want to go to his house for the holidays! You want to talk about awkward. . .”

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The Way, Way Back


Release: Friday, July 5, 2013 (limited)


The screenwriters for The Descendants return to write and direct this incredibly satisfying coming-of-age story about an awkward teen and his adventures at the local water park as he seeks refuge from his painful family life. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash pen another script which has become primarily responsible for winning people over left and right — myself included. Not only do the pair come up with characters who are believable, flesh-and-blood, and, for the most part, easily likable, but they harmonize comedic and dramatic elements just so that the film maintains an equilibrium of being wholly enjoyable from start to finish, without ever becoming too silly or too melodramatic for it’s own good. This is a remarkably good film for first-time directors and their writing abilities do not fail here either.

At the center of attention is Duncan (Liam James) and his struggle to fit in with anyone, even with those in his own family. His mom (Toni Collette) is now seeing a man with whom Duncan frequently butts heads. Trent is practically the antithesis of who we’re used to seeing Steve Carell play, even if we’ve gotten glimpses of his ability to be a complete dolt in previous roles (Michael Scott, anyone?), and more often than not, it is Trent who is making life miserable for Duncan. He asks what Duncan thinks of himself as a person on a scale of 1-10, and when the kid reluctantly responds with “a six,” Trent offers his thoughts: “Well, I think you’re a three.” There are other factors, too. His sister, Steph (Zoe Levin) is a spoiled brat who can’t stand being around Duncan for longer than she has to. His mom is a little more neutral, even though she can never quite get a good read on her son’s mood at times.

Regardless of appearances, and despite the fact that Trent insists on exerting total control over what Duncan “can” and/or “should” do here, this is Duncan’s story, told from his perspective, and we can only look on and silently cheer as he breaks down the barriers and makes his own way in becoming a young adult in spite of the circumstances.

One afternoon Duncan is off biking around trying to forget the latest drama around Trent’s beach house, when he comes across the Water Wizz Waterpark, and decides to explore what’s going on there by entering through an unlocked employee gate. Not long after he bumps into the same guy whom he had run into a day or so before at a pizza parlor, playing Pac Man by himself and rambling on about setting a personal high score. He introduces himself at the water park as Owen, and the two are fast friends. Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes an immediate notice of Duncan’s social anxieties, and aims to fix this as quickly and hilariously as possible.

The second act of the film, then, blossoms into a fun-filled montage of situations in which Duncan sheds his introversion and starts to come into his own. A lot of the process is owed to Rockwell’s wonderful performance as this gregarious park manager. I’ve been a moderate Rockwell fan for awhile, but nothing he’s done so far compares to the energy he emits in this little summer indie. Both Faxon and Rash have lesser but still funny roles as other Water Wizz employees — Rash as a bug-eyed, disillusioned employee who is unfortunately also a germ-o-phobe. It may be argued, though, that Rockwell is the best there is to offer in this film — a beacon of light among other solid performances from this ensemble cast.

What makes The Way, Way Back such an engrossing adventure, aside from Rockwell’s irresistible charm and the brilliant way James carries himself as the awkward teenager, is the secrecy of Duncan’s quasi-employment at the water park. After his first venture out to Water Wizz, Owen offers him a job “cleaning up puke” and doing other related, otherwise unappealing tasks. He commutes back and forth to the park on a hot pink bike, and is able to avoid saying anything about it when Trent and his mom ask where he’s been all day. He’s somewhat successful in keeping this adventure to himself; that is, until he attracts the attention of the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Equally awkward and out of sync with what’s going on in the world around her, she is able to extract a few sentences from Duncan each time they meet and this makes for a very sweet and believable relationship, perhaps made even more so because it’s not perfect.

I’ve had a very hard time pinning down the one creative element that made this film destined to become a classic, but maybe that’s just it: imperfection (I’m not talking about behind-the-scenes things like writing/directing/production values, etc). The human relationships — all of them — are all flawed, some in minor ways and others in more obvious and painful ways. One is flawed to a degree that has our protagonist questioning why his mom makes the decisions she makes. Duncan’s relationship with his mother is slightly flawed because he assumes he knows a lot about the goings-on of her life (it becomes clear late in the movie that he doesn’t). He assumes Owen won’t know what he’s going through because he’s just a park manager who seems to be always having fun (fortunately this is also an incorrect assumption). Trent’s neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney) is a fun-loving party-girl. But she’s in her forties and single. The fact that the movie is filled with flaws and wrongdoings makes the overall product ironically perfect. Or at least, something close to it.

On top of that, the movie is set in a beautiful location and the use of a water park makes for some interesting visuals and plot developments. That, and, well. .  water slides are the shit.

The Way, Way Back ultimately benefits from a great cast putting on great performances in conjunction with a strong screenplay and interesting setting. I could name at least a dozen coming-of-age tales that have been in varying degrees stimulating enough, but this basically puts on a clinic in terms of showing why that type of story has a place in the film industry. Thanks to Faxon and Rash’s sensitive direction, you can no longer say that these types of films are a dime a dozen. Or maybe you still can, but you cannot include this movie in that category. It is a much more matured film that absolutely deserved its wide release.

It’s hard impossible to imagine this movie not getting any nominations come February 2014.


4-5Recommendation: The Perks of Being A Wallflower of 2013. Even if that’s not my original thought, I love that idea. Both films feature a quiet protagonist who, about halfway through the film, really develops into a lovable, unforgettable (read: young) central character who benefits from the help of his elders. If you loved Perks, this should be what’s next on your list (of indie films, anyway).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 103 mins.

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