The Way Back

“Little things add up; let’s do all the little things right.” So advises Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high school basketball star who’s been tasked with coaching his alma mater’s failing basketball squad. It’s sound advice for a sports team and incidentally, valid advice for anyone battling through the depths of depression and grief. It just so happens that Jack, who is more deeply depressed than he even knows, isn’t doing either the little or big things right. Separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) for a year, Jack has isolated almost everyone from his life and drowns his loneliness with a constant supply of alcohol. When the opportunity to lead the aforementioned team presents itself, he rehearses his rejection speech intended for the head of the school while downing a 12-pack of his go-to lager before ultimately accepting the job.

As a redemption drama that could ostensibly be described as a “sports movie”, The Way Back is uncommonly insightful when it comes not only to addiction but how much strength it takes to overcome it, even temporarily. Jack thinks he’s hiding his alcoholism better than he really is, though he doesn’t have many people in his life to hide it from anyway. His sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) chides him for being late for Thanksgiving dinner and even confronts him more directly later on, relaying gossip about him visiting the local watering hole Harold’s Place every night. “I’m fine. I appreciate it but it’s– I’m fine,” Jack grunts. As it’s said, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one, even if Jack is still in denial when he accepts the coaching position that could set him on the right path.

I thought I knew what to expect going into The Way Back and you probably will too. As the director of other rousing sports films like Miracle and Warrior, Gavin O’Connor knows this and uses our knowledge of the genre to throw us off of the expected trajectory but not in a way that feels manipulative. Right up to the last frame, this film resonates with the stark authenticity that can only come from firsthand experience with the subject matter. Yes, there are training montages and yes, the team learns to overcome their interpersonal struggles in order to achieve success together as a team. The entire basketball angle, however, is always filtered through Jack’s perspective and O’Connor never loses sight of how much further he has to go to overcome his demons. Yes, coaching has given a reason for Jack to get out of bed in the morning but will that be enough for lasting change?

It feels strange to talk for this long about The Way Back and not discuss Affleck’s gut-wrenching and staggering lead performance, the finest of his 20+ year career. Rewatching 2000’s Boiler Room recently, I had in mind the cool and confident speeches he gave in that film and compared them to the impassioned words he shares with his team during timeouts here. This time, his voice cracks and he desperately shouts every word like it could be his last. Like his younger brother Casey’s Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea, Ben Affleck’s role is one marked by tremendous levels of personal pain which he both internalizes and externalizes brilliantly. It’s hard not to recall Nicolas Cage’s work in Leaving Las Vegas, where his character is either inebriated or hung over in every single scene. Affleck is even more nuanced in his portrayal of an aimless man searching for a way forward, despite the film’s slightly contradictory title.

Even if one goes into The Way Back simply looking for an inspiring sports movie, O’Connor and crew swish on the fundamentals that make for exciting basketball footage. The clear and concise editing from David Rosenbloom paired with the grounded cinematography by Eduard Grau will even have sports novices on the edges of their seats. Rob Simonsen’s music score begins with doleful stabs from dampened piano strings, gradually crescendoing to rousing heights with exultant percussion. Steeped in the messy realities of hard living, The Way Back is the kind of intimate and personal filmmaking that is sorely lacking from the major studio system.

Score – 4/5

The Invisible Man

In the wreckage of Universal’s failed Dark Universe franchise comes The Invisible Man, a smart and sensitive reimagining of the H.G. Wells novel that flips the script on the classic monster tale. Instead of focusing on Adrian Griffin, the troubled scientist who finds a way to permanently disappear, this remake shifts the perspective to the Griffin’s wife, who desperately seeks to get out from his overwhelmingly controlling presence. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has crafted a memorable psychological thriller that resonates with insightful truths about abusive relationships but doesn’t skimp on the unsettling moments of horror as well.

In the film’s masterful opening sequence, we’re introduced to Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) as she wakes in the middle of the night and gently pries herself from the grasp of her sleeping husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). After narrowly fleeing from their home, Cecilia takes refuge from her menacing husband with her police officer friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). She’s with them two weeks before she gets the news that Adrian has died of apparent suicide, of which she becomes immediately skeptical and even more so when she feels stalked by his unseen presence. Misplaced items and misunderstandings soon escalate to dead bodies as Cecilia becomes desperate to prove that she is being hunted by a man that no one can see.

Whannell graduates from dreck like Insidious: Chapter 3 to this mature and sophisticated chiller that mostly trusts the audience to keep up with the story’s many twists and turns. Though the narrative goes in many different directions, we’re taking the journey with Cecila every step of the way and even though other characters begin to question her sanity, we know we can trust her perspective. Even in a young year, we’re seeing films from The Assistant and Birds of Prey that directly call out predatory men and the systems that allow them to retain their power. The Invisible Man furthers this trend of reflecting on the Me Too movement, making the emotional violence perpetrated against the protagonist even more palpable.

As the fraught but fierce Cecilia, Moss disappears into a challenging role that demands both conviction and vulnerability and she finds the perfect balance in every scene. She can convey layers of trauma and suffering with a single glance, bringing the audience ever closer to her world of isolation and paranoia. As with most of the characters that Moss portrays, Cecilia is smart, cunning and resourceful; we know that we can trust her to make the right decisions even when she seems unhinged. There’s always been a steely magnetism to Moss’ work, a unique blend of unpredictability and understanding that makes her one of the most fascinating actresses working today.

Behind the camera, Whannell and his cinematographer Stefan Duscio brilliantly ratchet up the tension by filling the frame with negative space to suggest where the hidden antagonist could be at any moment. Along with Andy Canny’s editing, this creates a more studied pace to most of the film that distinguishes it from other horror movies that usually only care about cutting to a cheap scare. Topping things off, Benjamin Wallfisch’s dynamic and icy music score picks just the right moments to pop out and avoid the typical “gotcha!” stabs when underlying moments of genuine terror. Though it does commit a number of tiny gaffes in terms of logic and plotting, The Invisible Man remains a great example of how to shed light on an old monster and realize it never really left us in the first place.

Score – 3.5/5

Ep. #42 – The Invisible Man

I’m joined by my wife Aubree as we quarantine and chill with The Invisible Man, the new horror movie that is now available to rent on demand. Then we recap the thriller series Servant, whose entire first season is available to stream on Apple TV+. We also talk about the coronavirus pandemic and the effect that it could have on the film industry and movie theaters moving forward. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

All We Do Is Vin: Boiler Room

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

Before he was Dominic, Riddick, or Groot, he was just Chris. When we think of Vin Diesel, we think of leave-your-brain-at-the-door actioneers but before the one-two punch of Pitch Black (well, technically it came out the same weekend) and The Fast and the Furious, there was 2000’s Boiler Room. Written and directed by Ben Younger, the film stars Diesel as Chris Varick, one of the many money-hungry brokers at the crooked firm J.T. Marlin. It is there that Chris and his cohorts spend their days in the titular location barking at potential clients about stock opportunities with the bravado of young bulls. The scene is strikingly similar to the one set by Martin Scorsese 13 years later in The Wolf of Wall Street, sans the midget tossing and stripper parades.

Revisiting Boiler Room after seeing The Wolf of Wall Street, it almost seems quaint by comparison. Even though both are based on the Wall Street exploits of the infamous Jordan Belfort, the former uses his story as a jumping off point where the latter is more of a warts-and-all biopic. Boiler Room’s version of Belfort, Michael Brantley, played by That Thing You Do’s Tom Everett Scott, is decidedly the much more tame version of his real-life counterpoint and only pops up a few times in the film. The story instead focuses on Giovanni Ribisi’s Seth Davis, a street-savvy college dropout who ditches his home-based unlicensed casino and climbs his way up the ladder at J.T. Marlin.

One thing I love about Boiler Room is how much it takes a page from the Glengarry Glen Ross playbook of allowing specific actors to take a scene and run with it. The most obvious example is the trio of training monologues from Ben Affleck, mirroring the same venomous intensity of Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry character. “They say money can’t buy happiness? Look at the fucking smile on my face. Ear to ear, baby!”, he hisses at the wide-eyed recruits after bragging about the details of his millionaire status. Later, he coaches them on his “act as if” philosophy with similarly colorful language. He’s arrogant, callous and greedy beyond measure but we can still understand the appeal of the world that he’s pitching for these young newcomers. In just a few scenes, he epitomizes the timbre of the calamitous yet vaguely enticing environment in which he inhabits.

Diesel gets his own spotlight moment, jumping over desks to beat out fellow brokers for a hot new phone lead. The chaos on the floor stops as they put his call over the speakers so they can hear the master at work. The victim on the other line is a hapless doctor who took the bait on an pharmaceutical tip and has no idea he’s about to buy 2000 shares in 2 minutes. Diesel’s line readings drip with prevaricator’s poison as he rakes this poor guy over the coals. “That great doc, if you want to miss another opportunity and watch your colleagues get rich doing clinical trials,” he says poised with a rebuttal for any objection. After he closes, he greets the applauding crowd of dazzled traders with a Diesel signature move he would re-create a year later in The Fast and the Furious: arms stretched out wide with shrugged shoulders and shit-eating smirk. “Diesel is interesting,” Ebert remarked in his review. “Something will come of him.”

Shady business practices and four-letter words aside, Boiler Room doesn’t quite dive as deeply into the same Wall Street culture vices as something like The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is largely sexless, with the exception of a sweet romance between Seth and a receptionist played by Nia Long. Thanks to some truly garish product placement, there’s more Coke addiction than coke addiction on display. And yet, the movie evokes a specific time and place quite brilliantly, even if the cringey, scratch-heavy music score by The Angel hasn’t aged quite as well as everything else. With a sound script and confident direction, Boiler Room is a high quality look inside the low quality world of chop stocks.

The Hunt

Few films receive a marketing bump quite as staggering as the one behind The Hunt. Originally scheduled for release last October, with its controversial trailer premiering two months prior, the movie was shelved indefinitely amid the social unrest following a pair of mass shootings. The politically-charged promotional footage, which depicted liberals hunting conservatives for sport, predictably drew the ire of many given the cultural climate. Several news cycles later, Universal dropped a new trailer, touting their release as “the most talked about movie of the year that no one’s actually seen.” Given the current coronavirus scare, it’s ironic that the movie will likely remain unseen by many for reasons entirely removed from its political provocations.

After a text thread between unseen friends depicts them discussing a “hunt” for “deplorables”, we meet a group of 12 strangers who wake up in the middle of the woods a-la The Hunger Games. One brave soul opens up a large crate in the middle of the field, which houses a tiny clothed pig and an impressive array of weaponry. After they each grab their firearm of choice, the group is immediately fired upon by unknown assailants and the hunt appears to be on. A series of spectacularly bloody deaths occur and after some time is spent with some of the other survivors, the story settles upon Crystal (Betty Gilpin), the most fearless of the bunch who is determined to beat the hunters at their own game.

A relentlessly cheeky take on The Most Dangerous Game that gleefully skewers both sides of the political spectrum, The Hunt has enough satirical surprises up its sleeve to make its predictable premise palatable. Sure, personifying the current cultural war as a literal bloodthirsty battle royale between liberals and conservatives is not the most subtle of artistic choices but director Craig Zobel knows this. Instead, he saves a more precise aim when he goes for specific targets ranging from conspiratorial podcasters who are primed to out crisis actors to NPR addicts who blanch at the sight of cultural appropriation. Screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof revel in being an equal opportunity offenders, although it could be argued that the holier-than-thou liberal captors get put on blast even more than their conservative captive counterparts.

Even though the film is loaded with charged language and incendiary laugh lines, its influences and aspirations lie more in the genre of female-centric gory thrillers like Kill Bill or last year’s Ready or Not. It’s the kind of movie that delights in picking off characters with bits of brutality that get more ridiculous as the story progresses. Within that context, Gilpin’s Crystal is formidable “final girl” who doggedly assesses each threat with a droll, matter-of-fact sense of humor about the circumstances. Armed with a measured Mississippi drawl and dead-eyed stare, she turns in a fun and commanding performance with some appropriately over-the-top affectations and crazed mannerisms.

Just like their work on ABC’s Lost, Cuse and Lindelof start with a familiar “desert island” premise before introducing myriad twists and turns that will have audiences questioning characters’ motivations and where their allegiances lie. Unfortunately, problems with storytelling come about when these plot wrinkles generate logic issues within the narrative. Even at a taut 90 minutes, the film sags a bit too much in the middle as we impatiently wait for the admittedly outstanding final showdown. As a brazen sendup of America’s current political divide, The Hunt is surprisingly solid satire.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming to video on demand:

With the closing of cinemas worldwide, NBCUniversal made the unprecedented move to release new movies to streaming services the same day as their theatrical releases. Look for The Hunt, The Invisible Man, and Emma to be released for $19.99 rental from services such as iTunes and Amazon Video as early as Friday, March 20.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #41 – Onward

I’m joined by my friend Miles as we pack up the van and discuss Onward, the new family comedy from Pixar. Then we discuss other shows we’ve been streaming, including the new Amazon Prime series Hunters and the Stephen King-based miniseries The Outsider, whose entire first season is now streaming on HBO. We also inevitably talked about Coronavirus and its effect on pretty much everything. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Emma

Hot on the heels of Greta Gerwig’s awe-inspiring take on Little Women, we now have another iteration of a female-penned classic novel. Jane Austen’s Emma may be best known as the jumping off point for the mid-90s rom-com Clueless but in her directorial debut, Autumn de Wilde gives us a more traditional version of the tart tale. This is a sumptuous vision, filled with the lavish costume design and set decoration that we’d come to expect from a period piece like this, but also comes with flourishes that distinguish it from the genre. The film’s humor ranges from biting to whimsical and often within the same scene, which perfectly suits the flitting nature of the title character.

This time around, the haughty and posh matchmaker Emma Woodhouse is played by Glass star Anya Taylor-Joy. She cares for her father Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy) within their massive estate, though he largely stays removed from her affairs. To pass the time, she latches onto subjects around her and becomes interspersed with their romantic prospects, most notably the naive young orphan Harriet (Mia Goth). She has eyes for the plainspoken farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells) but Emma maintains that she can do much better for herself and attempts to set her up instead with the obsequious Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Through all of this, Emma pursues a friendship with the fetching Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who sees past her conniving ways and into her true essence.

Emma has always been a bit of a tricky character, as she has to straddle that line of arrogance and amiability, and Taylor-Joy captures this dichotomy even better than Paltrow did in the 1996 film adaptation. From the way she blithely pushes open a carriage window with a flippant tap of her index finger to the way she violently fans herself upon being bested by a friend’s pianoforte performance, she has all the mannerisms that capture the self-assured yet insecure nature of her character. As Knightly, Flynn is a grounded and cunning foil to the more flighty Emma and the two performers have a winning chemistry from their initial scene together. After a heartbreaking scene in which Emma makes an impudent remark towards Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), Knightley properly reproaches Emma and we’re reminded that this heroine is far from fault herself.

Set across a full year in the charming village of Highbury, with each season getting its own title card, we feel the passage of time ebb and flow as alliances are forged and broken. This movement is aided greatly by the enchanting and vivacious musical score by Isabel Waller-Bridge and David Schweitzer, which is so spirited that you’d be forgiven for thinking the characters could break out in song at any moment. Adding to the opulent table setting is the diverse and vibrant costume design by Alexandra Byrne, which outfits the women with exquisite dresses that practically tell their own story and the men with pompous collars so high and stiff that it’s a wonder they can muster any breath at all.

As costume dramas go, Emma isn’t quite as subversive and biting as The Favourite or Love and Friendship but it’s certainly no stuffy affair either. There are plenty of laughs to be had at the periphery, especially from Bill Nighy’s Woodhouse character, who doesn’t speak often but effortlessly lands some of the film’s funniest quips. Whether he’s sniping at Mr. Elton’s pronunciation of “innocence” or hiding behind a fort of fire screens in his ornate parlor, his pouty patriarch is a welcome presence at every turn. Emma is yet another example of timeless literature finding its match with a promising young talent on the rise.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Hunt, starring Betty Gilpin and Emma Roberts, is a politically-charged thriller about a group of strangers who discover that they are being hunted for sport by wealthy members of a secret organization.
Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel and Eiza González, follows a slain marine as he is brought back to life with nanotechnology and turned into an impervious super soldier.
Opening at Cinema Center is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, starring Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, about a a female painter commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman in 18th century France.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Onward

“Long ago, the world was full of wonder.” So goes the opening line of Disney Pixar’s Onward, a fantasy adventure film about rediscovering magic in a world that seems to have largely forgotten it. It’s not a stretch to think that the conceit is emblematic of Pixar’s current status in the world of animation, trying the recreate the effortless charm and whimsy behind some of their strongest achievements. After all, 4 of their past 5 films have been sequels, which might suggest a lack of fresh ideas. While Onward does rely on some of the formulaic factors that bolster most of Pixar’s other efforts, it still retains enough liveliness and lightheartedness to make it a mystical quest worth taking.

Set in a fantasy world inhabited by different types of mythical creatures, our story centers on the elven Lightfoot family led by the widowed Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Her sons, the meek Ian (Tom Holland) and rambunctious Barley (Chris Pratt), have very little memory of their late father. When Laurel gifts Ian with a wizard staff for his 16th birthday, they jump at the chance to resurrect their father temporarily to make up for lost time. Ian attempts to cast the spell, only to bring back their father’s lower half. With only 24 hours to complete the rest of the spell, Ian and Barley hit the road to find the rare Phoenix Stone that will allow for their father’s complete reincarnation.

Director Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University back in 2013, doesn’t stray far from the plot elements of other Pixar classics. The attempt to communicate with the deceased recalls the plot of Coco while the ticking-clock feel that surrounds the road trip narrative calls to mind the adventures found within the Toy Story films. What feels fresh this time around is the connection between the two brothers, who start out as polar opposites in terms of personality but are drawn closer together in the quest to bring their father back. A big reason their relationship comes through is due to the stellar voice work from Holland and especially Pratt, who have a chemistry that makes their bond as brothers completely believable.

A complaint that I almost never have with Pixar films is in the quality of animation and while Onward doesn’t necessarily look poor per-se, it has a certain blandness to its color palette that I wasn’t expecting. Even though its story is set in a magical land that has become more mundane as time has gone on, the settings are more dull and drab than they really need to be to get that point across. Even lackluster efforts like The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory still benefited from top-tier animation and comparatively, Onward feels like a bit of a step back. Despite this, there are some visual gags that land beautifully, particularly in the Weekend At Bernie’s-esque way the Lightfoot brothers find ways to disguise the fact that their father is missing from the waist up.

The conceit that this world is inhabited by mythical beings who have traded their magical powers for the comforts of commercialism and consumerism is an inspired one but the movie doesn’t dig into this theme as much as it could. Instead, it focuses on the inevitable obstacles that the two brothers encounter on the road, which makes for an amiable if unadventurous movie. Onward is more sturdy and reliable entertainment from the best in the business, even if it leaves a bit too much on the table.

Score – 3/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
The Way Back, starring Ben Affleck and Al Madrigal, follows a former basketball star turned alcoholic who looks for a path to redemption as he’s offered a coaching job at his alma mater.
Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn, puts a twist on the classic Jane Austen novel about a young woman who can’t stop meddling in the love lives of those around her.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup