The Way Back

Release: Friday, March 6, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had a future in basketball beyond high school. Probably beyond college. Once the pride of Bishop Hayes High in the 1990s, he led his team to more victories and championships in his four years than the many iterations managed in the decades since. These days, his alma mater barely manages to field a varsity team. They’re not an also-ran, they’ve been irrelevant for so long cobwebs are forming on those banners hanging from the rafters.

Now they’re without their coach, who has suffered a heart attack. Dan, an algebra teacher (Al Madrigal), pulls double-duty as an assistant but he’s no coach, at least not the one with the capital C. There are a few stand-out athletes running around the gym, but it’s all in disorganized fashion and the average player is as good at sinking three’s as Shaq was at free throws. Miraculously they still have a pep squad and a team chaplain (Jeremy Radin) and despite the dismal win record they abide by basic moral principles of competing fairly and with the understanding that the results of the game, fair or foul, do not define them as students, as young men.

Life after the game hasn’t been rosy for Jack. Working construction, living alone and drinking uncontrollably, Jack is functional but clearly in a good deal of pain. The Way Back slowly, cautiously inches its way towards an explanation as to why he has isolated himself not just from the game but from making social connections. One day he is thrown a lifeline in the form of a voicemail from Bishop Hayes’ Father Divine (John Aylward), imploring him to come and fill in as Head Coach for this struggling team. After a night of booze-soaked introspection and exhausting all possible reasons to turn down the offer, Jack of course shows up at practice and sets about coaching up. His goal is to toughen up the team, improve their fundamentals, make them eligible for the playoffs for the first time since his playing days.

Director Gavin O’Connor, most famous for Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011), presents yet another character-driven sports drama. I’ve always admired the way he marries realistic, intensely choreographed action with interesting characters going on powerful emotional journeys. The Way Back has all those ingredients and yet the flavor lacks. The drama, whether on the court or off of it, really doesn’t have any surprise plays in its playbook. To its credit basketball is not where the movie really lies; Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay de-emphasizes spectacle for the quieter emotional battles taking place away from the game.

The difference here is the bonafide movie star who delivers the emotion and nuance this patently predictable movie needs. It’s a terrific, authentic performance, not least because it’s often difficult to separate the Movie Star from the character. Affleck does just that though, in fact he succeeds to an almost profound degree, especially in the scenes in which he is forced to confront the source of his pain alongside his estranged wife Angela (the lovely Janina Gavankar). Ultimately, Affleck’s heartbreaking performance — no doubt elevated by this acute awareness of what he himself has gone through over a prolonged period — is what redeems the movie.

Recommendation: Empathetically told and impressively acted, The Way Back (not to be confused with the 2010 drama The Way Back . . . or for that matter, the 2013 indie comedy The Way Way Back) is yet more proof of the natural, amiable personality of director Gavin O’Connor. It hopefully marks a rebound for actor Ben Affleck as well. Word of caution for fans expecting on-court drama and personal tension on a Hoosiers level: don’t uh, don’t do that. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “You want to know why they’re leaving you open? It’s because they don’t think you can hit the ocean from the beach.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Accountant

the-accountant-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 14, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bill Dubuque

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

In Gavin O’Connor’s new film Ben Affleck plays a small-town certified public accountant with a keen interest in some very private accounts. Sure, he’s good with numbers but he’s even better with bullets (and belts, seemingly). This is a guy who doesn’t sleep with a pistol under his pillow but rather with a mini gun in his garage; someone whose line of work obligates him to convert his storage unit into a Russian nesting doll designed to bury or at least obscure his real identity.

And there’s the million-dollar question: just who is The Accountant? Or perhaps that’s just part one, for the why is just as important as the who. O’Connor, working from a script by Bill Dubuque, ceaselessly chases after the child that prefaces the adult in this nature-versus-nurture dramatic action flick. Part two of that question may be something we’ve asked of ourselves ad nauseam, but it’s still one worth mining in the movies: why do we become what we become? To what degree are we products of our environments?

Christian Wolffe (Affleck) is a high-functioning autistic and the survivor of his father, a military man who moved the family 34 times in Christian’s first 17 years of life. That’s a quite literal matter of fact, by the way. He didn’t just outlive his father; it’s something of a miracle he survived such a childhood — a childhood largely spent taking on school bullies in the streets and sparring with martial arts trainers well past the point of being bloodied. Yes, dear old Dad was the sort who actively denied his children happiness, believing boys should be bred tough. The sort who couldn’t possibly be pleased to hear one of his sons may have special needs.

O’Connor envisions the savant as a very nearly tragic character, someone whose violent actions in the present are inextricably linked to his brutal past (read: not to his mental health). In so doing, his film flits back and forth rhythmically between childhood memories and his present situation, teasing out a character study that is as entertaining as it is intriguing, even if the sum total of the experience is far from revelatory. Ultimately, The Accountant is another action romp fashioned around an enigmatic antihero, but it needn’t make apologies when it’s this well performed and this engrossing.

Suffice it to say the movie becomes less so when we get away from Christian Wolffe. Several subplots work their way into the mix, each of which try to match the gravity of that which is pulling them all into orbit. Even though they don’t draw the same power as this bonafide A-lister, they manage to be perfectly entertaining diversions, products of the immensely talented cast O’Connor has once again assembled. More importantly, they each add a layer to the discovery process, be they government agents (J.K. Simmons) who have wasted enough of their career on this sort of wild goose chase, or potential romantic prospects in the form of other awkward professionals (Anna Kendrick) whose earnestness is all but lost on a cold, calculating man.

Though the likes of John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor and Jon Bernthal play pivotal roles in the saga, there are two notable relationships on the periphery worthy of some page space here. One is constructed out of a fascinating tension between Simmons’ Treasury agent Raymond King and Cynthia Addai-Robinson’s Marybeth Medina, a hot shot looking for a promotion but who neglects to mention her history as a juvenile delinquent. Since lying on a federal form is a felony, her willingness to track down a very dangerous man becomes driven more by a deep-seated fear of regression rather than the pure pursuit of justice. Meanwhile the dynamic between Kendrick’s sweet-natured Dana Cummings — who works for the top-flight robotics company Christian has decided to make his next client — and the saucerful of secrets that is the accountant himself, remains mercifully platonic.

O’Connor is a filmmaker with a strong grasp on setting mood and establishing atmosphere, and those elements remain front-and-center while Affleck’s tremendous performance pulls us into a strange world, somewhere between the legal and the illegal, somewhere between righteous antagonist and morally corrupted hero. The Accountant bares many of the director’s trademarks — if you have seen Warrior you shouldn’t be too surprised by at least one of the many twists that surface — but there’s also a requisite (and substantial) suspension of disbelief that hasn’t really been there in O’Connor’s previous output. All the same, given all the elements that work and work really well, the discovery process is just too fascinating to write off the books.

just-another-boring-accountant-doing-typically-boring-accounting-stuff

Recommendation: If you like Gavin O’Connor’s style you’ll lap up The Accountant. It’s another study of how familial history and relationships play a part in shaping who we grow up to be, along with a myriad other environmental factors. I can’t outright declare the film as something you’ve never seen before, but there are enough things going on here to distinguish it — namely yet another strong lead performance from Ben Affleck (who says the guy can’t act?!) and universally fun performances from the whole cast. A fairly strong recommendation from yours truly.

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “Do you like puzzles? Tell me what you see . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Jane Got a Gun

'Jane Got a Gun' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Brian Duffield; Anthony Tambakis; Joel Edgerton

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Call it a troubled production but don’t call it a complete misfire. Though it may be a few shoot-outs short of a memorable western, Jane Got a Gun still gots a job to do and it does it rather well all things considered.

It’s a film that has seen a revolving door of cast and crew come and go, with Warrior director Gavin O’Connor squeaking in at the last second after the original helmer dropped out on day one of shooting. Joel Edgerton was supposed to be playing a villainous role but Ewan McGregor got it instead, filling in for Brad Cooper who was filling in for Jude Law . . . who was filling in for Michael Fassbender. Cinematographers were also replaced.

Some part of my appreciation for this movie‘s inextricably linked to my sympathy toward Natalie Portman here. Playing a game of musical chairs with the actors you’re potentially going to share a screen with can’t be much fun. Indeed if you look close enough in a few scenes you can almost feel if not confusion, then the frustration that the actress is clearly experiencing out of character. And if it’s not Portman being underwhelming then surely it’s the script; its heart wasn’t really in this either.

At film’s open we’re staring down the barrel of a fairly standard revenge western. Jane is a strong and capable frontierswoman who finds herself nursing her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) back to health after he returns home one afternoon bloodied and riddled with bullets. Bill warns her that the notorious Bishop brothers are coming after them, prompting Jane to take their young daughter to a faraway homestead to which she promises to return once this situation has been ‘handled.’ (It’s not quite Clint Eastwood promising/threatening justice/revenge, but Portman’s confidence doesn’t go unnoticed.)

McGregor is almost unrecognizable as the bloodthirsty John Bishop. He too is a product of a watered-down script, a cartoonish villain as if by design. McGregor is smarmy and he has his moments but this is more Kenneth Branagh as Arliss Loveless  than a man we should really take seriously. Boyd Holbrook plays younger brother Vic. He’s kind of just there. With such a cultivated physical appearance, I was sort of surprised to see what a bunch of lame-o’s Bishop’s entourage really was.

Joel Edgerton digs his hands into the dirt sportingly as Jane’s ex-husband Dan Frost, a gunslinger who enlisted in the Civil War and left it only to find his wife had moved on. Now she seeks him out for extra protection from the incoming attack(s) and, although bitterness isn’t very becoming, it somehow suits Edgerton and he all but confirms the technique will never disappear. That’d be okay if it’s used more subtly than it is in this movie. Dan’s easier to pull for when he inevitably returns to the frame because . . . well, when Edgerton plays a good guy, how can you not root for him?

So Portman isn’t the only one fighting an uphill battle, saddled with an underdeveloped character as well as an unambitious screenplay. The trio of Portman, Edgerton and McGregor fair the best and each of them succeed in overcoming the dryness aridness of the writing. As Jane, Portman is one of the year’s first strong female leads and her intensity in the final scenes certainly sets an impressive benchmark.

It’s her persistent toughness and intermittent vulnerability that gets us through a deliberately (bordering on tediously) paced two acts before bullets truly start flying in the much-anticipated, chillingly shot climax. (Interestingly, the most consistent aspect of the production is undoubtedly Mandy Walker’s warm, vibrant photography.) By and large the film is beautiful to look at and on a visual level it succeeds in evoking the classics. Jane Got a Gun does show signs of a lot of wear and tear, the story isn’t as focused as it ought to be and many edits are questionable but even given all of its faults this one’s difficult not to like. Not pity, but actually like.

Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton in 'Jane Got a Gun'

Recommendation: The film won’t really ‘wow’ anyone, yet there’s enough here to more than recommend a watching at home (it’s heading out of theaters so quickly the wait won’t be long) with popcorn and your caffeinated beverage of choice. Portman, Edgerton and McGregor are great reasons to see this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “My life’s worth isn’t your concern. Hasn’t been for years.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.actucine.com