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For Your Consideration: 'The World's End' and 'The Way, Way Back'

The most relevant awards for the best movies of the year are those from associations of impartial film critics -- Critics' Choice, San Francisco, Toronto, London. One of the unfortunate results of the way the Academy Awards are categorized and decided is that excellent films that happen to be comedies are mostly ignored. These two movies made several of the critics' lists, and they are both worth seeing.

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The World's End (directed by Edgar Wright)
The World's End is the third installment of Edgar Wright's trilogy about loveable, pub-bound losers in world-altering circumstances. After sorting out the Zombie Apocalypse (Shaun of the Dead) and a small-town neighborhood watch conspiracy (Hot Fuzz), Wright and the usual suspects find themselves in another town where all is not as it seems. (In between came Wright's strange but also funny Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, not with the British crew, but that had the same curious mix of aimless youth and wild fantasy.) This time, we follow a band of mates who return to their home town, the idyllic village of Newton Haven, to try to relive a legendary night of drinking from their youth. They are grudgingly reunited by Gary King, played by Simon Pegg, who shares the screenwriting credit with Wright, a high school notable whom time has left behind.

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Mostly through bald-faced lies, he convinces Andy (razor-tongued Nick Frost), Oliver (the ever-versatile Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Steven (Paddy Considine) that they have to complete the legendary crawl through all twelve of the town's pubs. By the time they reach the last one, called The World's End, they realize that you really cannot go home again, with many great jokes along the way about the homogenization of pubs in Britain and the small mindedness of small town living, countless movie references, and a breathless pace that requires multiple viewings to get all the gags. Suffice it to say that the gradually more and more drunk lads uncover something of science-fiction proportions behind the changes in Newton Haven, but you will get no more spoilers from me. Watch it now, and then watch it again in a few years when it has become a cult classic.

The Way, Way Back is the directorial debut of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who bring much of the same whimsy to this screenplay that they gave to that of Alexander Payne's The Descendants. It is a goofy, late 70s or early 80s coming-of-age story, and with the costumes, hair styles, and properties and locations, it is a near-perfect homage to the sort of teenage B movie one might have watched on the television in that era. Liam James, a rising kid television actor, is impenetrably self-pitying as Duncan, the teenager who finds himself a prisoner of a summer vacation he does not want. His divorced mother, Pam, played with earnest desperation by Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine), has hooked up with a self-possessed jerk named Trent (Steve Carrell, in a performance that hits an almost self-parodying comic note). From Pam's point of view, though, Trent is a self-possessed jerk who has a beach house, and that is where they set off for the summer, with Trent's daughter, all scowl and bad attitude.

The title of the film signifies both the sense of distance the setting of the film has from our age -- say 1981, in the last millennium, which is somehow crossed with our own time because of the cell phones and MP3 players the characters carry -- and that special seat in the very back of the wood-paneled boat of a station wagon the family takes to get to the beach. That is Duncan's place in life, both literally and metaphorically, facing away from everyone else and pretty much ignored. Now to me, this sounds like a dream that is only really possible when you are a teenager -- a whole summer at the beach, where no one expects anything from you, and you are free to do nothing but read books and listen to recordings. (This is precisely what young Doug McKeon had to discover for himself in On Golden Pond, made right around the time that The Way, Way Back is set.) For Duncan, however, this is some sort of hell, as he flounders about, making a pitiful attempt to chat up the pretty girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) and trying to negotiate the excesses of the adults in his life (Allison Janney has entirely too much fun as the next-door neighbor, Betty, who never met a drink she didn't like).

Other Reviews:

New York Times | Washington Post | The New Yorker | The Atlantic
Wall Street Journal | Rolling Stone | NPR

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The Way, Way Back (directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash)
So Duncan takes off on the old bike of Trent's daughter, complete with banana seat and handlebar streamers, and looks for something to entertain him. Unlike so many of us, who as kids scoured every block of our neighborhoods and towns this way, convinced there must be something more exciting just around the next corner, Duncan actually finds something. He finds Water Wizz, a water park of slides and wave pools from yesteryear -- it is apparently an actual place, where these scenes were shot on location, in Cape Cod. Duncan is not entertained by the water rides, but because he manages to walk into a summer job in the park, thanks to a friendship that develops with the park's owner, played with sarcastic relish by Sam Rockwell (Box of Moon Light), and the other regulars at the park (lots of fun bit parts by Maya Rudolph, Rob Corddry, and the two directors themselves). From them, perhaps tritely but no less movingly, Duncan learns that life will turn out alright, once he has survived adolescence. This may not be a momentous movie, but it is a very enjoyable one.

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