Drug War (July 12/13)
An almost incongruously exciting effort from Johnnie To, Drug War follows gritty, dedicated cop Zhang (Sun Honglei) as he captures a notorious drug lord (Louis Koo's Tommy Choi) and subsequently uses him to get closer to several top-level criminals. There's little doubt that Drug War establishes itself as a better-than-expected police procedural right from the get-go, as the movie's opening half hour has been suffused with a number of impressively thrilling action sequences - including an over-the-top car chase and a gripping pursuit through a busy hospital. One's assumption that To won't be able to sustain the blistering pace is proved correct as Drug War moves into its plot-heavy and lamentably talky midsection, with the proliferation of underdeveloped characters exacerbating the convoluted bent of Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, and Xi Yu's screenplay. It does, as a result, become awfully difficult to care about Zhang and Tommy's ongoing exploits, as the viewer, with little invested in their respective fates, is left with nothing to latch onto as the movie sinks deeper and deeper into its impenetrable narrative. (This is despite the inclusion of a few admittedly striking action sequences, including a raid on a meth-making factory.) Just as one is ready to completely write it off, however, Drug War bounces back with a tremendously involving and exciting climax that culminates in an epic shootout in front of a school - with the effectiveness of this stretch, which is just about the best of its kind to come around in quite some time, ultimately compensating for the so-so nature of everything preceding it and confirming the film's place as a better-than-average cops-and-robbers thriller.
The Way Way Back (July 26/13)
Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Way Way Back follows Liam James' Duncan as he reluctantly accompanies his mother (Toni Collette's Pam) and her boyfriend (Steve Carell's Trent) on a beachfront summer vacation - with the movie detailing the acceptance Duncan eventually finds among a group of off-the-wall water-park employees (including Sam Rockwell's irreverent Owen and Maya Rudolph's maternal Caitlin). There's certainly nothing fresh about the shopworn premise and yet The Way Way Back ultimately manages to establish itself as a charming little effort, with the strong performances going a long way towards compensating for the various deficiencies within Faxon and Rash's far-from-flawless screenplay. It's worth noting, however, that the film does suffer from an almost off-puttingly quirky opening half hour, as Faxon and Rash have peppered the supporting cast with idiosyncratic figures that can be awfully tough to stomach - with Allison Janney's loopy Betty standing as the most obvious and egregious example of this. The inclusion of several down-to-earth moments in the film's midsection proves effective at luring the viewer into the decidedly slow-paced proceedings, and there's little doubt that the movie's sullen protagonist is slowly-but-surely transformed into a wholeheartedly sympathetic figure - although, by that same token, it's clear that Rockwell's Owen remains the most entertaining and engaging element within The Way Way Back (ie the actor is as charming and affable as ever). Faxon and Rash's perpetually conventional sensibilities, however, prevent the film from becoming anything more than a passable piece of work, as the narrative has been suffused with excessively hoary plot developments that grow more and more problematic as time progresses. It is, as such, not terribly surprising that the feel-good finale doesn't quite pack the emotional punch that the first-time filmmakers were surely shooting for, which does, in the final analysis, cement The Way Way Back's place as a perfectly watchable yet all-too-forgettable coming-of-age comedy.
In a World... (July 30/13)
Written and directed by Lake Bell, In a World... follows struggling vocal coach Carol Solomon (Lake Bell) as she attempts to rise above the shadow of her famous father (Fred Melamed's Sam) to become a voiceover artist in her own right. First-time filmmaker Bell has infused the early part of In a World... with a fast-paced and gleefully irreverent sensibility that proves difficult to resist, with the easygoing atmosphere heightened by the strong performances and inclusion of several hilariously conceived comedic set-pieces. Bell's affable turn as the central character is, for a little while, enough to compensate for a narrative that's rarely as focused as one might've liked, and it's hard to deny that the movie, which seems to go off on a new tangent every 15 minutes or so, begins to palpably run out of steam about halfway through. The film's saving grace is its sporadic emphasis on the behind-the-scenes exploits of its voiceover-industry characters, as such moments possess a fun, insider-like feel that generally compensates for the erratic nature of Bell's screenplay (eg there's a fantastic sequence detailing the competition for a job narrating a highly-anticipated movie trailer). But for every energetic and entertaining stretch, In a World... has been suffused with two or three more interludes that simply don't work or wear out their welcome (eg the characters converge at a movie-trailer awards ceremony) - which ultimately confirms the film's place as a passable yet far-from-flawless debut for Bell.
R.I.P.D. (July 31/13)
Inspired by a Dark Horse comic book, R.I.P.D. follows a pair of mismatched (and deceased) cops (Ryan Reynolds' Nick and Jeff Bridges' Roy) as they track down and arrest law-breakers who've escaped from Hell and disguised themselves as living humans. There's nothing especially fresh or innovative about R.I.P.D. and yet the movie is, in its early stages, much more watchable than one might've anticipated, as the movie boasts a brisk pace and a tremendously entertaining (and impressively idiosyncratic) performance from Bridges - with the script's blatant resemblance to the Men in Black series, as a result, initially not as problematic as it could (and should) have been. There reaches a point, however, at which filmmaker Robert Schwentke, working from Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's screenplay, takes the emphasis off the characters and increasingly places it on larger-than-life action set pieces, which perhaps wouldn't have been quite so bad if the film hadn't been suffused with some of the worst computer-generated special effects to come around in quite some time (ie everything, virtually without exception, looks as though it's emerged from a second-rate video game). The movie's progressively over-the-top sensibilities slowly-but-surely render its positive attributes moot, with, even, Bridges' work losing its luster and becoming as disposable as everything else within the proceedings. By the time the incoherent, interminable climax rolls around, R.I.P.D. has established itself as a note-perfect example of everything that's wrong with contemporary blockbusters - which ensures that the film is likely to turn off even the most forgiving of cinemagoers.