The Way Back is a story, beautiful in its own troubled way, of a broken man struggling with alcoholism and his own regrets, by coaching a “lost cause” basketball team at the high school where he had been a celebrated champion.
WHO SHOULD WATCH:
Mid-teens and up but ONLY with parental discretion, supervision and discussion. While there is no sexual content, there is a LOT of bad language and scenes of self-destructive drinking which make for excellent horrible warnings. On the plus side The Way Back gives a clear demonstration of respect for the Catholic Church in general and priests in particular as kind moral centers and understanding sources of redemption.
While The Way Back has a lot of similarities to traditional underdog movies, it progresses through far darker waters than your average feel good sports flick. Most movies of this genre would have ended two-thirds of the way through where The Way Back does. But The Way Back has the courage to move FORWARD through a realistic assessment of the deeply troubled Jack Cunningham, far after the predictable conclusion to the basketball team’s triumphs. This is not condemnation but commendation.
I like a formulaic sports movie as much as the next person. From the faith-based Facing the Giants to the histo-sports drama Victory, the sentimental Hoosiers and the weepy The Miracle Season, I love movies that end tied up in a nice neat bow. But The Way Back is just not one of those movies.
The story, clearly a vehicle for Affleck as cinematic therapy for his own struggles with alcoholism, is of an angry and bitter Jack Cunningham – divorced, former basketball champion, alone and seemingly determined to drink himself to death. Functional in his construction worker job, he showers in the morning with a beer in the soap dish, pops one open on his way home, spends his evenings at a bar and often has to be partially carried home by a family friend. Apparently his life fell apart 2 years previous and we do not initially know why. It could have been for a lot of reasons, but this is a man who has almost completely cut himself off from his family, and self indulgently given up on his marriage, his life, and hope itself.
He is a walking poster child for horrible warnings, until his former priest calls him in need of some assistance with the team which is now languishing at his old alma mater. The previous coach had taken ill. They needed a replacement and, I suspect, the priest knew Jack needed a constructive purpose. While the rehabilitation of the basketball team is satisfyingly predictable, it is only the background of the road to redemption for Jack.
Movies like He’s Just Not That Into You and Batman versus Superman notwithstanding, Ben Affleck is a fine actor. His talents have shined in movies like The Accountant, (SEE REVIEW HERE) about an autistic hitman, and Argo, the semi-docudrama about the rescue of six people behind Iranian lines during the Carter botched, Reagan recovered hostage crisis of 1979. The Way Back, directed by the same talented Gavin O’Connor who helmed The Accountant, is another example of Affleck’s abilities. It’s no coincidence that Affleck has had his own battles with dependency. Jack’s very realistic pain reaches through to the viewer in every scene.By Affleck’s own admission The Way Back was cathartic as the actor went from rehab to filming. And Affleck makes the most of every aching moment.
Janina Gavankar is solid as Jack’s long suffering estranged wife, Angela. Al Madrigal is sympathetic and charming as Dan, Jack’s assistant. Jeremy Radin and John Alyward offer lovely performances as Fathers Mark and Edward, respectively, who try to encourage Jack while still guiding the young men on the court who are in Jack’s care.
The basketball scenes are energetic and entertaining, respecting the audience enough to immerse the basketball in what was, to me, obscure language, but providing enough clear context in language, action and good filmmaking, that details were not necessary.
The movie is quite good but certainly not without its flaws. The cinematography by Eduard Grau is dark, whether by accident or poorly thought out attempts at atmosphere is unclear. Some scenes have jerky edits, and a lot of the intimate conversations are shot with all the panache of a TV soap opera.
On the other hand, the music by Rob Simonsen, who has penned music for other heart wrenching and moving stories like: Burnt, Tully, Life of Pi and The Nativity Story, is hauntingly beautiful and understated, like variations on a theme in the tragic symphony of Jack’s life. The soundtrack carries a theme that plays hide and seek from opening to ending credits, like the thoughts Jack can not, and perhaps does not want, to purge from his mind or in which he wishes to drown.
While The Way Back is a challenge to watch it is also rewarding, warm and even occasionally funny. The path that Jack walks is a rough road with an uncertain destiny, and though it is occasionally painful to travel with him, it is a worthwhile journey to take.
AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF “ODE TO JOY – LOVE STORY WITH A TWIST” REVIEW
How do you manage a romance if being happy makes you pass out? This is the conundrum with which a cataplexic man struggles when his perfect woman unexpectedly appears.
WHO SHOULD WATCH:
Mature older teens and up for language, comedic miming of sex, and attempts by the main characters to physical intimacy, though there is no nudity or anything graphic.
What do Sherlock, Deadpool, Big Bang Theory, Saturday Night Live and a Bob Fosse docudrama have in common? The best of the supporting cast of each of these film projects in an adorable little rom com, directed by Jason Winer and written by Max Werner and Chris Higgins called Ode to Joy.
A friend of mine has often teased that EVERY movie could be described as “a love story with a twist”. But Ode to Joy really is.
Martin Freeman, (Watson from Sherlock) is Charlie, a man who suffers from a neurologic condition called cataplexy, a condition in which any strong emotion, but for him especially joy and happiness, will cause him to — basically faint. Watching a cute cat video could render him unceremoniously unconscious, and while it may initially seem funny, the movie points out how dangerous, both physically and emotionally, the condition can be for those who actually suffer from this condition.
The script is based upon a radio interview (which you can listen to HERE) with a man named Matt Frerkin, himself a neuroscientist, who discovered he had this condition after becoming unable to move whenever he experiences strong emotion.
So Charlie keeps himself in constant emotional check, leading a quiet life as a librarian — until the girl of his dreams storms in.
Jake Lacy (featured as Gwen Verdon’s second string love interest in the mini-series about the life of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, Fosse/Verdon) plays Cooper, his watchful but fun love ‘em and leave ‘em brother.
Morena Baccarin (Deadpool’s fiancee) is Francesca, the woman who breaks into Charlie’s well encapsulated life.
Melissa Rauch (the loud but loveable Bernadette from The Big Bang Theory) is Bethany, a mousy eccentric woman, who rounds out the quartet.
Jane Curtain (an SNL charter member) is Francesca’s Aunt Sylvia, who is full of life despite her terminal illness.
There’s more than meets the eye to this un petite affaire de coeur. At one point Charlie yells at his brother, plaintively wondering if he understands what it is like to live every day afraid of making a fool of yourself. The answer is, of course, yes. Everyone does. We all have our burdens to bear. And when anyone falls in love, as Charlie has, they expose themselves to the ultimate vulnerabilities. It doesn’t take cataplexy to make you aware of the potential hurt and humiliation, rejection and risk of falling – in Charlie’s case literally – head over heels. Charlie’s cataplexy is merely an extreme physical manifestation of the chance we all take with that bold step out to admit we love.
What can leave us more exposed than being unconscious, especially unbidden and unexpectedly? And that is a perfect analogy for the leap you must take in a commitment. You lay your life, your heart and your unconditional willingness to accept rejection out on the floor, undefended to whatever might happen beyond your control. God, Himself, takes that risk with every human’s Free Will when He offers us Grace and unconditional Divine Love. Though there are consequences to turning our back on this Love, God never ceases to offer that Love. And ultimately this is what Charlie realizes he must do to pursue the good of another – genuine Love, Love without a sense of entitlement, what Plato would call philia born of eros, or a Catholic might call Charity – in order to find true — Joy.
There are scenes in which Charlie experiences true Joy, but is not “Happy” in the emotionally excited way which most of us think of as “happy” or which would trigger his cataplexy. Charlie, during these scenes, is noticeably joyful, pointed out by the other characters, even while we the audience members know he is sad, as Charlie attempts to bring Joy into the life of someone else even at his own expense. He unwittingly discovers what is true Love, even though neither his friends or even Charlie really understands this.
As for Francesca, she is a woman who prefers to set herself up for romantic failure. Having lost her mother to hereditary breast cancer and on the verge of losing her beloved Aunt to the same disease, she tends to keep things superficial, moving frequently and choosing shallow men uninterested in a permanent relationship. But Francesca too instinctively knows true Love and Joy as, though sad, she Joyfully visits and helps her Aunt, who she describes as her best friend. And counseled by her open-hearted, Bucket List accomplishing Aunt Sylvia, Francesca also wrestles with the idea of what it means to Love and commit.
It occurred to me that the characters were what an adult version of Inside Out might look like from the mind of someone “in love” who matures from adolescent infatuation to true altruistic Love. From Francesca’s often unfettered enthusiasm and Cooper’s libido, to Bethany’s confused obliviousness, Charlie’s hyper-awareness of his vulnerabilities, and finally the wisdom of Aunt Sylvia who, more than most, understands the ephemeral preciousness of life and the importance of altruistic Love, they rotate about each other examining the question of the importance of living well and FOR someone you love – even if you have to risk pain and loss.
The music by Jeremy Turner is simple, the cinematography by David Robert Jones uncomplicated, but the story is neither. Although Ode to Joy is in that familiar niche of quirky romantic comedies with some unique obstacle to the main couple’s happiness, Ode to Joy is also an intelligent and clever story which surprises, offering quite a bit to think about.
The language is occasionally adult with completely unnecessary profanity. And two unmarried couples try to go to bed together, though no nudity and ultimately, and wisely, nothing happens because of — comic reasons.
My only real complaint about the movie is it leaves the outcome of one of the characters unresolved and unaddressed, especially frustrating as that character was unfairly treated and earned a conclusion.
But overall Ode to Joy was – a joy to watch. So if you have a rainy afternoon to spend with someone you love, you could do worse than spend it watching and talking about this lovely little film with the big heart that is an Ode to Joy.
AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE REVIEW OF JOHN WICK (THE FIRST CHAPTER)
Ultra-violent movie which skates on a thin excuse for revenge to create large piles of dead bodies.
WHO SHOULD WATCH:
Adults only, and then only those with a stomach for violence: intense weapon and martial-art combat lethal force, and extreme language. Its only “virtues” are a minimal amount of sexuality, mostly limited to bikini clad escorts, and the fact that the protagonist is a devoted and faithful, albeit grieving, husband.
I know I’m probably the last one on the train here with John Wick (2014) as it has been out so long there is now a third installment. Having just seen the first one and with the John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum in theaters now, I felt compelled to make some comments about the “origin” story.
SPOILERS FOR JOHN WICK, TURNER AND HOOCH, A DOG’S PURPOSE, AND MARLEY AND ME
The premise, in case you have been on a prolonged abstinence from movies, is that a retired assassin goes on a massive killing spree after someone shoots his dog.
Now there is more to it but that is what it boils down to. John Wick verges on, if is not steeped in, what one might label as violence “porn” ( by which I mean senseless and gratuitous violence for the purpose of cathartic schadenfreude* brutality), though of a certain attractive elegance, which takes itself way too seriously. Don’t get me wrong , I am sympathetic to Wick’s righteous anger over the unnecessary killing of a puppy. As I have mentioned before in other posts, while I can tolerate an awful lot of violence in an action movie, I cringe at the thought of something happening to a dog. That point has actually prevented me from ever watching a couple of movies, including:
Turner and Hooch, and Marley and Me. I have even been putting off watching A Dog’s Purpose even though the dog gets reincarnated multiple times, because I know the viewing will require a couple boxes of kleenex.
My point being, from a cinematic point of view, I am quite sympatico with a lead whose motivation, which propels the entire running time, is the death of his dog.
However, even by my rather indulgent parameters of an average action movie, wherein the protagonist is given nothing to lose, I could not help but yell at the screen occasionally, wondering why his opponents did not handle the situation quite differently.
The mutt murderer was, Iosef, (Alfie Allen best known as Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones), the son of John’s previous employer, Viggo, a Russian mafia Don, (Michael Nyqvist from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and the Naomi Rapace version of the Dragon Tattoo girl). Iosef had come to steal John’s hot car – and the dog just got in the way.
As Viggo, the Slavic Vito Corleone points out, it was bad luck that brought them back together in this way. But a little common sense and a teensy bit of courtesy could have mitigated the situation, if not established an easy detente.
The dog was the last gift from John’s dying wife. From the reaction of wiser heads than the aforementioned Iosef, the dog dispatcher, everyone knew about this and what the legendary assassin, John’s, response was likely to be. A hitman with nothing to lose and a lot of grief anger to expend, is a recipe for a bloodbath.
Therefore, I thought, had I been Viggo, (and keep in mind I am stepping into the shoes of a Mafia Don), I would have arrived with a new car, a new dog, a profuse apology, a chastised son with a black eye, and an offer to set up an entire charity Animal Hospital in the name of his deceased wife.
Instead, Viggo, knowing his son was stupidly in the wrong, as evidenced by the beating he gave Iosef after the fact, puts a contract out on the man to whom he refers as the best of the best, the one who was called Baba Yaga, not because he was The Boogeyman but because he was the one you sent out to kill The Boogeyman. This is a guaranteed plan for failure and Viggo’s downfall hereafter is from criminal (if you’ll excuse the pun) stupidity. I couldn’t help but think of Hawkeye in Thor. Watching Thor dispatch agent after agent in Thor’s path towards Mjolnir, Hawkeye quips to Coulson: “Do you want me to take him down, or would you rather send in more guys for him to beat up?” Because, that is what Viggo does – he sends in squad after squad to kill this unkillable killing machine. Viggo’s men are about as effective as Storm Troopers and were this a video game John would have the High Score. But WHY???!!!
Viggo is an intelligent man or wouldn’t have been able to create and keep his empire. He MUST have seen the results of his decreasing returns. And no explanation is given as to why he would commit his entire army in a fruitless and hopeless effort to take out the one man he knows he can not defeat, especially when it seemed obvious to me there were alternatives. It’s not even that he is so committed to the protection of his son. Viggo doesn’t like or love his son and Viggo ultimately gives Iosef up to Wick as bait to save his own skin.
90% of the movie is John’s body count which quickly exceeds the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan.
I get the use of the MacGuffin. I even get stories where you put the protagonist in a corner with nothing to lose and watch them fight their way out. Movie franchises like Taken, Die Hard,Jack Reacher and even a few of the James Bonds are good examples of a protagonist who resolved knotty conundrums with fists and firefights. And I am the first to admit they are guilty pleasures. But the motivations are usually more compelling, as in: protection of a vulnerable family member, a national danger, or the righting of a grave injustice. AND the protagonist usually is witty, relieving the unremitting gore and violence a bit with dry one liners.
But, despite the fact I have often maintained that Keanu Reeves has missed his calling as a comedian, Reeves’ Wick parkours his way through the movie on the backs of dead bodies with the somber deadpan of a mini-Lurch from The Addams Family. Don’t get me wrong, I like Keanu Reeves. I just wish someone would DO something with him which entails more EXPRESSION!!!
When I refer to Keanu Reeves’ comedies, I’m not talking about the unintentionally – so bad they are funny – like Constantine, and his insult to the classic Day the Earth Stood Still. Nor am I referring to his well done stint as the singular dry villain in Branagh’s Shakespearean comedy Much Ado About Nothing. I’m talking about Reeves roles in legitimate comedies. If unfamiliar with Keanu Reeves’ comedies, I recommend the slapstick ridiculous Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the wryly observant ensemble piece Parenthood. Both are for an older crowd though.
Reeves can be really amusing and cute with good timing. And while I’m not suggesting that a former assassin who has just lost his wife to cancer and his dog to a home invasion should be light-hearted, John Wick is unrelentingly grim where it perhaps did not have to be. I mean, Wick is SUPPOSED to be human, right?
I have often maintained that the best loved action films often have a sense of their own humor. Good examples are Jaws, Aliens (but only the second as the first and third are even grimmer than John Wick and the fourth is best simply ignored) and all theDie Hard movies. Tongue is planted occasionally but firmly in cheek and there is an awareness in the script of its own cliched vulnerability.
But Wick‘s level of constant violence with no emotional offsetting balance is just exhausting.
The cinematic atmosphere is dark and poetically sympathetic, as most of the movie takes place in dark interiors, at night, or in conjunction with bad weather.
There is an interesting juxtaposition with another film I have previously reviewed, which DOES have a sense of humor, called Hotel Artemis. Much of the third act of John Wick takes place in the Continental, a hotel renowned as a high-class refuge for people in John Wick’s line of work. Like the Artemis, a hospital for the underworld with questionable aesthetics, the Continental has a primary rule: you are not supposed to kill any of the other guests. A certain neutrality is supposed to be enforced there amongst society’s lethal predators. These two – the titular Hotel Artemis and the Continental in John Wick – exist in a consistent universe where you could put them on a double bill or even together in the same movie. But Hotel Artemis, unlike John Wick, has a heart and knows when to recognize the grin in even the darkest human comedy, and is a far better movie for that.
Small parts and cameos from the action-adventure pool abound in Wick from both TV and film. Ian McShane, who has added his talents to everything from westerns to British and American cop shows to Pirates of the Caribbean, plays the owner of the Continental. Willem Dafoe who has appeared in movies as divergent as Platoon and Spider-Man 3 is a mysterious colleague / competitor. Adrianne Palicki, most notably the indominable Agent Bobby Hunter in Agents of Shield and Kelly Grayson in The Orville, is Perkins, a female assassin. Lance Reddick from Fringe and Blacklist is Charon, the concierge of the Continental. John Leguizamo, from Executive Decision and Baz Lurhmann’s ultra-violent version of Romeo and Juliet, is Aurelio, the chop shop owner to whom Iosef brings Wick’s stolen car and who is the first to clue Iosef in to his mistake with a punch in the mouth. There were so many cameos from the action adventure genre that I would not have been surprised to see Samuel L Jackson show up. Sadly, that was not to be.
The acting is good and the shoot-‘em-up-bang-bang with combined martial arts is well-choreographed and interesting as Wick dispatches his targets with precision and no innocent bystanders to the count.
Wick is obviously an anti-hero with a ledger redder than Black Widow’s. As action adventures go it was brainless fun and emotionally cathartic to watch a bunch of bad guys being blown away with incredible efficiency and expertise by another, but sympathetic, bad guy. It is always a pleasure of sorts to see anyone do their job with such skill and excellence whether they are a pastry chef, a ghost hunter, or a paid assassin. But still I couldn’t help perseverate on the plot point of the missing opportunity to mitigate. Had Viggo tried to placate Wick but been rebuffed I would have found the scenario far more believable at least within the universe of that genre.
But what I truly do not understand is how the film makers can justify one sequel much less two. I mean, in this first one John killed …….. EVERYBODY. And I wonder about the movie’s core world-view. Iosef, for all his being a completely cruel jerk, was not responsible for the death of John’s wife nor did he attempt to kill John. Therefore, John’s reaction to the theft of his car and slaughter of his puppy without at least an attempt at peaceful and equivocal recompense, to me seemed over the top even for this kind of movie, making it hard for me to empathize with a protagonist who creates this much mayhem.
Compared to similarly set up movies like the aforementioned Die Hard, Taken, or from a HUGE variety of styles where the protagonist goes on a mission to avenge a terrible wrong with extreme prejudice, like: True Grit, Death Wish, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Dirty Harry – even for me, even for this genre of movie – John’s reaction was too extreme and with insufficient reasonable motivation, making this a (if you’ll excuse the pun) fatally flawed story.
schadenfreude – a German word for which there is no English equivalent, meaning: pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune.