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

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

The narrative that DC is flailing and Marvel has got it figured out is so solidly ingrained now that I don’t see it changing. It doesn’t matter that Marvel’s movies look and feel more homogeneous as they go. Or maybe that is part of their popularity. It doesn’t matter that DC is doing stuff that is weird and good. Once Batman v. Superman came out and people didn’t like it, the narratives were set. DC will always be chasing Marvel, no matter how different the approaches and final products. Warner Brothers has put out some really good DC movies over the last year, mostly using an approach of simply making the best film for each character. Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam were all excellent and, no matter my complete disdain for it, Joker really resonated with people. Birds of Prey continues this, while salvaging the best part of Suicide Squad.

Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn as she breaks up with the Joker. As abusive and toxic as that relationship was, she learns that her proximity to the most feared criminal in Gotham had granted her a measure of protection that she took for granted. Especially with night club owner and criminal Roman Sionis. Once she is no longer untouchable, he comes after her to get revenge for several petty slights. Luckily for Harley, he is in need of help. Help finding an important jewel, which was stolen from his henchman Zsasz but a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other people out to get her before Harley does. One is Gotham cop Renee Montoya, who has been trying to take down Sionis for years. Another is the mysterious Huntress, who showed up out of nowhere and started shooting people with a crossbow. And finally there is Dinah Lance, a night club singer who is finally fed up with Sionis.

The story is told from the perspective of the somewhat addled Harley Quinn, so it moves in fits and starts at times. She is telling the story as it goes, and sometimes goes back to tell it in a different way. The disjointed nature of the opening hour works in the film’s favor as it slowly introduces characters and shows scenes from different points of view. In all, the structure calls to mind early Guy Ritchie movies like Snatch, where various groups of criminals bounce off each other in unpredictable ways.

The movie shines in one area especially: the fights scenes. Supposedly John Wick director Chad Stahleski helped with the fight scenes and it shows. They don’t match that series for inventiveness or impact, but the fight scenes here are a cut above most action movies, let alone most superhero movies. Birds of Prey’s action has weight. The scenes are frequently over the top, even silly, but that fits in perfectly with the movie they are making. They are a deadly, ridiculous ballet. The fight in the police station is great and the big one at the end is just masterful.

It also shines with characters. Margot Robbie continues to be excellent as Harley Quinn. The character is seen somewhat as DC’s version of Deadpool, and there is some truth to that. Like Reynolds with that character, Robbie perfectly embodies Harley Quinn. Also, it is a taste that is not for everyone. The Birds of Prey stray a little further from their comic counterparts, but they all get the cores of their characters right. Montoya is a good cop pushed just a bit too far by the corruption of Gotham. She wants to do the right thing, but is so disillusioned with the system that it is starting to break her. As we are introduced to her here, played by the excellent Rosie Perez, she is starting to crack, but her heart’s in the right place. Huntress, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is pretty much straight from the comics. A mafia princess coming back to get revenge on the people who killed her parents. She is a somewhat twisted version of Batman that, in the comics, eventually broke good. The new addition is her social awkwardness, an understandable development for a person who spent most of her life training to get revenge. Then there is Dinah Lance, Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who we do not get enough of but has the best arc outside of Harley. She starts as someone who ignores the damage happening to people around her, until it is so in her face that she can’t ignore it. As the movie goes along, she becomes more committed to fighting against it.

The only fly in the ointment is Cassandra, who bears absolutely no resemblance to the comic character. She is almost as much of a mcguffin as the diamond she stole, but mostly works as a sort of kid sidekick to the whole cast, though she ends up in Harley’s orbit for most of the movie.

I’ll admit to being enough of a comic nerd that seeing characters I like on the big screen is still something of a thrill for me, especially when they are character who have not been there before. DC’s B and C list characters are some of my favorites, so seeing Huntress and Black Canary was fun in and of itself. However, Birds of Prey is firing on all cylinders. It has great action, a good sense of humor, and some really great character work. I loved it.

****1/2

The Rhythm Section

It feels like beating a dead horse to write about this movie. It didn’t review well, nor did it make any money. There really isn’t a good movie. There are certainly things it does well, but the package does not come together into any kind of entertaining movie.

The Rhythm Section is a spy movie about a woman, Stephanie (Blake Lively) whose family was killed in a plane crash. A few years after that, she is visited by a reporter who tells her that the plane crash was not an accident, but a terrorist attack. This leads to Stephanie wanting to get revenge. First she attempts it on her own, then she seeks help from a former MI6 agent played by Jude Law. He trains her, then uses her to track down the people responsible for the plane bombing.

The movie creates strange juxtapositions. It is mostly a somber, realistic take on a spy or revenge movie. But it is full of needle drops that seem to come from a much more fun, pulpier movie. It highlights the humanity of Stephanie, showing the toll that losing her family, and blaming herself for it. She is slowly killing herself as the movie starts. She has fallen as low as she can. Then the movie gives a perverse ray of hope; it gives her someone to blame. It shows how desperate she is to do something to get revenge, but how hard it is to take a human life, especially when she has to look the person in the eye to do it. Then she has to train.

A lot of movies, fun and good movies, would breeze through this training, or end up with Stephanie as a cold, bad ass killer. To its detriment, The Rhythm Section is better than that. She trains for a few months and knows enough to get herself into more trouble. She is obviously not ready for this work, but she knows enough to fake. Every attempt she makes to do James Bond stuff ends horribly. She fails repeatedly.

The strange juxtapositions come in with the filmmaking. Sometimes things are shot handheld, to try to appear realistic. Sometimes it is super stylized. Most discordant is the ending, with Stephanie walking off like a supreme badass, which is not what the movie showed her becoming. The ending treats everything before this as an origin story, but there her character arc ends with her having no reason to ever engage in this sort of work again.

It is not like you can point to any one thing that sinks this movie. Lively and Law, and Sterling K Brown who plays an information broker, are good. The movie does some interesting things. But as it goes on it becomes more and more clear that the pieces here just don’t fit together.

**

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen did not disappoint. While not as quite as light on its feet or sheerly entertaining as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, The Gentlemen still has a lot to enjoy. There is this unfortunate undertone of something really gross just beneath the surface of this movie. The movie traffics in the idea that if it is offensive to everyone, it is offensive to no one and while I don’t think that holds up to any sort of scrutiny, this is not really a movie that invites any sort of scrutiny.

The movie follows Matthew McConaughey’s Mickey Pearson, a marijuana kingpin who is looking to get out of the game, to retire and spend time with his wife. He is looking to sell out to an American billionaire. Also looking to hone in on his territory is an up and coming Chinese mobster Dry Eye. The story of this potential deal is laid out by Fletcher, a private eye hired to turn up dirt on Mickey, who is telling his story to Mickey’s right hand man Raymond. Of course, there is more going on with every character than is initially apparent. Also, Colin Firth shows up as an Irish boxing coach who gets involved trying to keep some of his young boxers out of trouble.

A troubling part of the movie is how it frames its villains. It plays up the foreignness of Dry Eye, and the American billionaire is also Jewish. Fletcher, who quickly shows himself to not be trustworthy, plays up his homosexuality. The movie is also pretty sympathetic to the plight of impoverished aristocrats who can’t afford the upkeep on their giant manors. But to accept this framing as truly troubling, you have to buy Mickey as someone worth rooting for, and I don’t think the movie really makes you root for Mickey. You like the cool, collected Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) and Mickey’s wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who runs an auto-body shop by women for women. But Mickey himself, an American who came to the U.K. and started a drug empire, is not especially sympathetic. The only truly likable person is Coach, a rough and tumble guy who just wants to keep some youngsters out of trouble.

The movie is mostly enjoyable. As it plays out as Fletcher telling Raymond a story, it allows the movie to have some fun with things, with Fletcher spicing up the story when he is missing information or just wants to make something up. It allows for director Guy Ritchie to use some of his fun tricks to spice things up. However, it never quite gets to that incredible tumbling house of cards feeling that Snatch managed. In Ritchie’s earlier gangster movies, you had several different groups of running different schemes that bounce off of each other in interesting ways. The Gentlemen really only has two or three factions and little in the way of surprise. It is still fun, but it feels just a little lacking.

Still, it is fun to be back in Ritchie’s English underworld. Honestly, while I have plenty of complaints, I really enjoyed seeing this. It is not a movie that is going to stick you for long after you leave the theater, but it is a really enjoyable time while you are there.

****

Just Mercy

If you are being incredibly reductive, and I am, Just Mercy is a message movie. The movie is simply steeped in earnest moralizing. It could have become unbearable. Fortunately, it manages to hold back just enough, and is well performed enough, that it gets its message across in a mostly entertaining way.

Michael B. Jordan plays Brian Stevenson, a newly graduated from Harvard lawyer who moves to Alabama to set up the Equal Justice Initiative to help people on death row. Among the cases he takes on is that of Walter “Johnny D” McMillan, played by Jamie Foxx, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death based on patently and obviously false eye witness testimony. Just Mercy follows Stevenson as he digs into McMillan’s case and as he deals with threats and obstacles from the racist system that put McMillan on Death Row and the racists who are working to keep him there.

The movie is heavy without being completely heavy handed. It shows starkly what black people face in this country and the south especially. Stevenson starts out somewhat insulated thanks to his upbringing in New England. He is soon disabused of any notions of fairness in the system. It starts with a forced strip search when he visits his clients in the prison and escalates to the local police holding him at gunpoint during a traffic stop that is a pretext to rummage through his files.

One thing Just Mercy does especially well is keeping focus on the prisoners. Three are major characters in the movie: McMillan, Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). The first two claim to be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of (and were both eventually exonerated). Richardson is guilty, but the movie emphasizes his humanity. He did a terrible thing, but the movie interrogates whether that makes it okay to end his life. Richardson was a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD. He was clearly traumatized, but instead of getting help, he was abandoned by the system.

The movie also does a great job of highlighting the tedium of legal work. Stevenson spends a lot of his time pouring through files, doing research and crafting motions to try to get justice for his clients. These efforts come to naught for the bulk of the movie. His motions are denied, even when the evidence he presents is overwhelming. It is long, crushing, often fruitless work. The movie does not make it exciting, but it does make it look heroic.

The movie cannot help but be incredibly earnest because this is an incredibly important topic. People’s lives are on the line here. It succeeds largely on almost uniformly strong performances. Jamie Foxx is the standout, he is amazing in this movie. Brie Larson does what she can with a role that is important and kind of nothing. Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall are solid as well. The movie manages to give hope in what is a hopeless situation, with the idea that with enough work things can get better. I’ll retract this statement if someone tells me the character is based on a real person, but I could have done without the increasingly sympathetic prison guard. That felt like a ill-fitting note in the context of the rest of the movie.

I’ll end with a little moralizing of my own. The Capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment. It is barbaric and has no place in a civilized society. Even if it were ever justified, which it is not, the systems the United States has in place to enact it are too flawed to be acceptable. The movie notes this in its closing moments and is exactly right. The problem with a message movie like this is that it either is accepted by everyone, making it pointless, or those who reject it simply don’t watch or ignore it. Hopefully some people see this movie and learn something about our incredibly flawed justice system and that changes still need to be made to fix it.

****