"The Way Way Back"

Liam James stars as an uneasy teenager subjected to summer at the beach with his divorced mom and her obnoxious new boyfriend (Steve Carell). Feeling desperately out of place, James discovers the refuge of a local water park, where he secretly takes a job.

Managing to be hysterical and heart-achingly sad at the same time, the film boasts a terrific combination of a sharp script and well-honed acting. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash co-wrote and directed, serving as a near-perfect embodiment of how, when done right, screenwriters can bring their characters to life like no one else.

James manages to faultlessly capture the awkwardness fronting an intellectual tempest found in many teenagers. He is so genuine in this role that it's hard not to believe it was written just for him.

Carell defies his funnyman typecasting and plays a philandering jerk who browbeats our young hero. Skillfully, Carell manages to use his fleeting screen time to paint a rich picture of the loneliness and debauchery in some of the 40- and 50- somethings who gather in the wealthy costal enclaves of Massachusetts.

Sam Rockwell as the devil-may-care water park manager almost steals the film with his rapid-fire delivery of the film's best lines. My teenage son and my septuagenarian father-in-law both enjoyed the film, making it that rare delight that appeals to multiple generations. While theoretically appropriate for kids 10 and older, teenagers and adults are the target audiences. (PG-13: Language and drugs). 1 hour and 43 minutes.


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Ratings (out of 4 stars):

Overall: 3½ stars

Kids: N/A

Teens: 4 stars

Adults: 3½ stars

Seniors: 3 stars

Should you watch it? Yes -- smart comedy at its best.

"Monsters University"

Debating the best Pixar film of all time is likely to lead to an argument, given the breadth of the Emeryville studio's hits. And while the first "Toy Story" is still my favorite, "Monsters Inc." comes in a strong second. So it's particularly disappointing that this back-to-school sequel is so underwhelming.

John Goodman and Billy Crystal reprise their roles as lovable monsters in the alternate universe where everyone is scaly and/or scary. Since the original "Monsters" had a happy and complete ending, the filmmakers take us back in time to when our heroes first meet in college.

While theoretically promising, the execution disappoints. Very little of the first film's energy, humor and originality come through in this follow-up, which is hampered by a threadbare script. If I see another movie with a group of misfits who must pull together as a team to beat their snarky, overconfident opponents in order to win a series of wacky contests, I'm going to pull out what few hairs remain on my head.

Pixar can do better, and our children deserve better. Some moments of peril and mild scares make this best for kids at least 5 years old. (G). 1 hour and 44 minutes.

Ratings (out of 4 stars):

Overall: 2½ stars

Kids: 3 stars

Teens: 2 stars

Adults: 2 stars

Seniors: 2 stars

Should you watch it? Yes -- underachieving Pixar sequel will satisfy your kids.

J.B. Alderman lives in Piedmont and can be reached at jason@alderman.net.