The Way Back

The Way Back is strange in how it manages to be both kind of slight and very heavy at the same time. It hits all the familiar marks of its genre, but underplays them in such a way that they actually have more impact. It isn’t a great movie, but it is one that makes a solid impact.

Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, an alcoholic former high school basketball star. While he is slowly killing himself drinking, his old high school comes calling. Their basketball coach has suffered a heart attack and they need someone to step in and finish the season. Jack is reluctant to do so, but he eventually takes the position. While the school was a powerhouse back in his playing days, they are now down to six varsity players and have won only one game all year. From there, he helps teach the players about basketball and he learns how to move on with his life.

While several sports movies come to mind while watching The Way Back, the big one is Hoosiers. It hits a lot of the same beats. That movie also involved an alcoholic basketball coach who initially alienates some of his players. A coach who frequently lost his temper on the sidelines. With players whose parents are leery of letting them play over concerns about schooling. But while it hits a lot of the same beats, it does so with different enough emphases that it feels like its own thing instead of a pale imitation of the past. It also doesn’t have the pat conclusions that many other inspirational sports movies have.

For the Way Back, the basketball is secondary to the personal journey of Jack. Affleck immediately instills in him a bone deep weariness; you can feel the pain and trauma this character has suffered in every move he makes. However, the movie holds back on the exact details of that pain. He is separated from his wife and there was some past tragedy, but it doles out the information at a measured pace. Meanwhile, you see Jack slowly start to work through his pain. The basketball gives him something to hang on to. There is no call for him to stop drinking, he merely tries to sober up to better do his job. It is obvious he is white knuckling it, and when a past tragedy comes back, he can’t handle it. Setting up the usual backsliding portion of the movie.

There is just enough of the basketball team and strategy to keep it interesting. The team is limited in size and numbers, so Jack comes up with a plan to offset those weaknesses. He tries to instill in his team a sense of toughness. The players do not get a lot of development, but what is there is put to good use. The center, played by American Vandal and High Flying Bird’s Melvin Gregg, likes to shoot threes and has an exaggerated opinion of himself. The sharpshooter is a wannabe ladies man. The best player is a point guard too soft spoken to lead the team. Jack helps some of them become better players. Mostly, just the point guard.

The Way Back is an understated and effective drama. It feels like the kind of movie that won’t really stick with people, but the people who see it are likely to really enjoy it. I know I did.

***1/2

Emma.

Emma., from Autumn de Wilde and based on the Jane Austen novel, is wonderful. It is staged and costumed is style and well acted all around. It has pretty much everything that a good adaptation is supposed to have.

Emma. stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the title character, and she fully carries the film. The supporting players, with people like Bill Nighy, are also excellent. While this is the director’s first film, Emma. feels incredibly confident all around. This movie knows exactly what it is and what it wants from every scene, every shot.

Emma brings to mind two recent literary adaptations. The movie that most comes to mind is Whit Stillman’s recent Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship. While the works that were the bases for these two movies are very different, the movies show how to make engaging Austen adaptations; treating the subjects with enough irreverence. Emma is possibly Austen’s most overtly comic novel, and Lady Susan, the basis for Love & Friendship, was a deliberate inversion of such stories. Emma is a character who is never in any kind of danger; unlike the characters of most Austen novels her place in society, and that of her family, is not reliant on her making a good marriage. Emma’s problem is Emma. By putting the focus on her and letting her highlight the small hypocrisies of eighteenth century society, and contemporary society in some ways, it lets the novel be more comic. The movie plays this up. Emma is clever and well meaning, but she is also flawed. The movie focuses on those flaws, and still finds a way to make her charming. She may cause disaster after disaster, but since the movie makes her well meaning intent clear it is easy to forgive her. Since there are genuinely no stakes, it makes it easy to just go along. Love & Friendship had greater stakes, as Lady Susan and her daughter were in a precarious social situation. That movie revelled in how much Lady Susan was allowed to get away with because of the politeness of society. Emma is in a similar situation, but with less of reason to flout rules but a better motive in doing so.

Another movie that comes to mind is last year’s Little Women from Greta Gerwig. The movies share a modern sensibility applied to a classic work. Little Women did more to make the story its own with the structure of the movie, interweaving the two halves of the novel into one cohesive storyline, while Emma is much more a straight adaptation. But there is something in the attitude of Emma that feels more modern. The structural and thematic changes to Little Women were part of why it was so well received. Emma will likely not get such a rapturous reaction, but it was just as entertaining of a film.

Emma. is the first great movie I’ve seen this year. It is pretty much everything one could want out of a literary adaptation. If you have any interest in these sorts of adaptations, you owe it to yourself to see this.

****1/2

What I Watched February 2020

Movies

Maria – Some kind of would be female led John Wick style action movie. It kind of works, but it isn’t especially good. There are some good action scenes, but it is mostly just fine. **1/2

Psychokinesis – A Korean superhero movie that is actually a lot of fun. Roon-mi runs a chicken restaurant. She is involved in a real estate dispute with some mobsters working for a big corporation. When her mother dies, her estranged father, Seok-heon, shows up. He now has superpowers. After first trying to use them for petty schemes, he uses his powers to help his daughter out. It is a solidly entertaining superhero movie. ****

The Matrix – Yup, this first one is still great. I have no interest in watching the sequels again. *****

Shanghai Fortress – This movie is shockingly dull. A science fiction action movie about an alien invasion. It also tries to be a romance, but it only kind of works. **1/2

Elisa & Marcela – The true story of the first gay marriage in Spain, kind of. The movie is not good. It is melodramatic and didactic. I didn’t like it much at all. **

Rampant – A Korean zombie movie period piece. Lot’s of political scheming over the throne and trying to use an outbreak of a zombie virus to secure power. It goes badly. This is more of an action movie than a horror movie, but it is enough of a horror movie that I mostly just wanted to shut it off. ***

Back to the Future Part 3 – I know people who are really down on this movie, and BttF2. I don’t get it. The original Back to the Future is pretty much perfect, I agree, and its sequels are not quite on its level. But both 2 and 3 are ridiculously fun in their own right. I really like the 3rd one, as it puts the setup of the series into a new genre. *****

Dragon Quest Your Story – For most of this movie’s runtime it is an enjoyable, if incredibly fast paced adaptation of one of the best video games ever made. The last fifteen minutes turn it into something else entirely. ***1/2

Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks – This is a documentary about the development of Hong Kong Kung Fu movies. It is kind of surface, but it is largely entertaining. It covers the genre from Bruce Lee to close to the present day, covering the ups and down of the genre and its stars. It is a solid primer for those only vaguely aware of the genre. ***1/2

The Last Thing He Wanted – Bad movies are not usually this well made. This movie got miserable reviews and for about the first hour I was somewhat baffled by that. Then it got into its second half and . . . I don’t know. This is a strange movie. Everyone involved is too good for this movie to be this disjointed. **

TV

The Spy – It is interesting to see Sacha Baron Cohen do serious work. And good work. This show is good, but not great. It slips into hagiography at times, flattening a complex historical figure into something more like a straight hero. It is alo really tense and mostly very entertaining. Cohen plays the Isreali spy Eli Cohen, who infiltrated the Syrian government in the 1960s. Knowing historically how it ends makes it hard to watch at times. He has to leave his family behind and become someone else. He gets good information from the Syrians, but eventually the net closes in on him. He can feel it closing, but he is able to be talked into keeping going for all the good information he is getting until the inevitable happens. It is really good.

The Dragon Prince S1-3 – Pretty solid cartoon from Netflix. I never really warmed to the animation style. Still, the show itself is pretty well done. I don’t have a lot to say about it. It is a well executed fantasy story that is suitably complex and original. If you can get past the animation, which I really didn’t like, it is well worth watching.

Godless – This show is amazing. Just a long, loving, beautiful deconstruction of western tropes. The town of La Belle is almost completely without men after a mine accident killed nearly all of them. In their absence, the women of the town have banded together to keep things going. Jeff Daniels plays an outlaw, Frank Griffin, who waxes on about God while committing unspeakable acts. Roy Goode, played by Jack O’Connell, was like a son to Griffin until he double crossed him and took off. He takes refuge in La Belle. Sam Waterston plays a US Marshall hunting Daniels. Things almost never play out like you would expect in this show, at least until near the end. Scoot McNairy is the sheriff of La Belle, but he almost never draws his gun, leading to him having a reputation as a coward. His widowed sister is the real leader of the town. The show lets the characters live as it builds up to the inevitable conflict between the town and Griffin’s gang. It is one of the best things I’ve seen in some time.

The Pharmacist – Another Netflix true crime series. This one is a trip, following a pharmacist as he first tries to find the person who killed his son, then as he tries to get to the bottom of the all of opioid prescriptions that are running through his pharmacy as people start dying. It is plenty entertaining, even if it doesn’t really offer anything new.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Part 3 – This show is something else. I still wish they would cut each episode down by about 15 minutes. I know the 40-45 minute runtime is for airing on tv with commercials, but the full hours that a lot of this shows episodes run feel laborious. I’ve got to be honest here, I am not especially engaged with this show. It is fine; largely well made and occasionally interesting, but I am never really interested. I do appreciate how wide the show tends to go with things, with trips to hell and all kinds of wild nonsense.

Giri/Haji – This show is wild. It is nominally a cop show. Kenzo, a Japanese cop, goes to England to look for his brother Yuto, who is in the Yakuza. Kenzo has to balance his responsibility to bring in his brother, if he is indeed guilty of the crimes he is suspected of, with his duty to protect his brother. There are all kinds of complications, from British gangsters to Yuto’s relationship with a Yakuza bosses daughter to Kenzo’s crumbling marriage, to Sarah, the British cop that takes a liking to Kenzo. Not on that, but the show seems determined to change genre about 4 times an episode. It is always a crime show, but sometimes it is an action movie, sometimes a relationship drama, sometimes it is animated, sometimes an action scene plays out as an interpretive dance. It keeps the viewer off balance and consistently engaged. I really enjoyed it. I don’t know that there is much room for a follow up season, but I would definitely watch one.

Shrill S2 – Another batch of episodes here that are really pretty good. I don’t know that I am directly the audience for this, but I enjoy the show enough to stick with it for its relatively short run time.

High Fidelity – I have not read the book this is based on. I never watch the John Cusak movie. This show is fine. It feels perfectly aimed at a very specific audience and I am not that audience. The foremost reason for that is that I don’t really care about music. Rob is this insane mix of appealing and completely insufferable, a hard trick to pull off. The show is really easy to watch even if you are not particularly engaged with it.

What I Read February 2020

I finished one big book in February, and then a handful of much shorter ones. It feels good to be reading at my preferred pace. I hope I can keep this up for the next couple of months, before I have to start studying for the bar.

Dune

Frank Herbert

This book is one that has been on my to read list for a long time. People frequently recommended this. It was also compared to a series I like a whole lot, though after reading it I find that comparision to be overblown.

Dune is kind of oddly structured. The outline of the story is a familiar one, but the way it plays out is odd. The book spends a lot of time setting up the situation it is getting ready to blow up. It either starts way too soon or way too late. It is nearly the midway point of the book before the villains make their movie and kicks the plot into high gear. Then the book spends an inordinate amount of time on Paul’s escape. But the time it gets to Paul turning the tables on Baron Harkonnen, there isn’t a whole lot of book left for it to happen in. I don’t know that I mean these observations as criticisms. I really liked the start of the book and the meticulous world building. However, it did seem that many important things, especially in the back third of the book, happened off the page and were merely related to the reader in a line of dialogue.

Herbert did an amazing job of establishing a world and a ton of interesting characters. I wanted to know about most of the players in the book. Really, I was a little disappointed with how little a lot of interesting characters get to do.

In the end, I see why this book is considered a classic of the genre, and I can see its influence on many other series I’ve read. I don’t know that I actually liked it all that much, though.

Dune Messiah

Frank Herbert

I know the first book got into this a little bit, but this sequel is incredibly fascinating in how it just completely undermines the conclusion of its predecessor. Dune is a hero’s journey for Paul, Dune: Messiah examines what it means to be a hero and whether or not that is good. And it comes down solidly on the side of it not being a good thing. Paul has assumed the role of emperor and gotten revenge for his father, but in doing so, he has also unleashed a wave of destruction across the galaxy. Destruction that he is powerless to stop.

The whole book, which is less than half as long as the first, deals with a labyrinthine plot to bring Paul down. A plot that Paul is not especially eager to stop. One part of it has his wife, Irulan, dosing his lover Chani with contraceptives so they cannot produce an heir. Paul is aware of this, but doesn’t stop it because he has foreseen that birthing his heir will cause Chani’s death. So he lets various plots develop, so long as they are advantageous to him. The book puts you on the side of Paul, but the more you see of the situation, the less clear it is that Paul is actually good. It takes the hero of the previous book and shows him to be ineffective and powerless and destructive. It makes for an interesting read.

Sourcery

Terry Pratchett

This is the Discworld book that Pratchett apparently said is where readers should start. It is pretty fun. A wizard goes against wizard custom and has children, which leads to the creation of a sourcery, a person incredibly gifted with magic. As this sourcerer starts to take over the magical world, controlled by the spirit of his father, Rincewind sets out to stop him. Kind of, Rincewind mostly seems to just want to get away.

Like the previous Discworld books I’ve read, the plot appears to be largely there for Pratchett to engage in witty word play. This one also has a lot to say about fate or destiny. Each of the characters feels fated to be one thing or another. Conina is the daughter of a barbarian, but wants to be a hairdresser. Nijel the Destroyer is an accountant who wants to be a barbarian. Rincewind is a wizard who is all but incapable of doing magic. Each of these characters, and more, have to deal with the conflict between what they were “born” to be and what they want to be. I feel like I’ll be saying this a lot in this post, but this book was a lot of fun.

Peril At End House

Agatha Christie

This one is unique among Christie’s Poirot books in that I immediately twigged to the killer. I tend to like the game and am content to let Christie lay out the clues before I start trying to solve the case, here it just seemed pretty obvious. I can’t say I knew all the why, which is the really important part, but I pretty quickly got to who and how.

In Peril at End House, Poirot meets Nick Buckley after seeing an attempt on her life. So he sticks around to try to figure out who amongst her somewhat suspicious friends and relatives are trying to end her life. Unfortunately, despite his efforts, someone ends up dead. Only it is not Nick but her cousin who was wearing her jacket. So Poirot sets out to find out who was responsible. It is a pretty solid mystery.

Lord Edgware Dies/Thirteen At Dinner

Agatha Christie

An actress approaches Poirot for his help in securing a divorce from her estranged husband. He is wary to do it, but he eventually agrees to plead her case. Poirot is surprised when that husband, Lord Edgware, not only agrees but claims he agreed to the divorce long since. The next day, Lord Edgware turns up dead. One person who has an airtight alibi is his estranged wife, the actress Jane Wilkinson. Poirot suspects her, but looks elsewhere. Soon, more people start to turn up dead.

Another largely solid Poirot book. They are all good, but this one kind of fades into the comfortable middle. It is not especially memorable, but thoroughly enjoyable while being read. I think you can kind of feel Christie getting tired of Hastings as the Watson to Poirot’s Holmes here, and he would disappear a few books later.

Now Playing February 2020

Beaten

My World, My Way – read about it here. I am still a little shocked about how much I enjoyed this game, and how much I miss the days when weird experimental games like this could be released.

Ongoing

Yakuza 3 – I got started with this and I am going to see it through. I was quickly reminded of what I loved about this game nearly a decade ago. The game does a great job of starting with something of a bait and switch. Instead of diving back into the world of crime from the first two games, and instead starts the player in a new area and tasks them with solving the problems with a gang of orphans. It starts with a couple of hours of Kiryu simply playing dad. I haven’t yet hit the part where it turns and becomes more of a classic Yakuza game.

Dragon Quest XI – More slow progress with this game. It is kind of my ideal of a modern jrpg, but I don’t have the time to sink into the extended play sessions that do this game the most justice. Still, I am going to keep making what progress I can with this game. I just did the mermaid quest and it was pretty heartbreaking. Just a tragedy of errors all around.

Double Dragon and Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Bundle – This is a pretty impressive package. Sixteen games, some of them with different versions. These are not games that most people have played a lot. The Double Dragon games were very popular back in the day, especially the first one. I have always been a huge fan of River City Ransom. Most of the rest of the games are lesser known or have never been released in the United States. I have been a big fan of the Kunio games since I first played River City Ransom and World Cup Soccer on the NES and I can’t wait to get into all of these different games. So far, I have played a ton of Double Dragon, which is much harder than I remembered. Or maybe I do remember it being this hard, because I made just about as far as my memories of the game go. I’ve also played some of the hockey game, which isn’t as enjoyable as I remember soccer being, but it is still pretty fun.

Shin Megami Tensei Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers – This game is a tough one to get back into after some time away. I am used to the more modern SMT games, and this game does not have some of the quality of life improvements of later games in the series. I don’t really know what I was doing or where I was going. I don’t know what I am doing with my roster of demons. I am not quite sure what I am doing with character progression or where I am in the story. I think I will push through. I do like a lot of this game, it is just a little unfriendly at times.

Upcoming

River King: A Wonderful Journey – This has been sitting on my shelf for years, and for some reason, likely related to the game below, I’ve been feeling some strange pull to put this in and give it a go. Maybe during Spring Break

Rune Factory 4 – Now that I’ve finished My World, My Way, I am moving on to other DS/3DS games that I have not yet finished. I’ve cleared a decent amount of Rune Factory 4 already, but I have trouble balancing the forward momentum of exploring the dungeons and doing the farming and community building stuff. But I’m in the mood for some of the low key pleasures of this sort of game.