Monthly Archives: March 2020

High Hopes & Hoop Dreams

Basketball drama gives Ben Affleck his most personal role yet


The Way Back
Starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins & Janina Gavankar
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
In theaters Friday, March 6, 2020

In this hoop-dreams underdog tale, a washed-up former high-school basketball star comes back to his old alma mater to coach its ragtag team. Can he turn these losers into winners—and shake off the ghosts of his own troubled past?

OK, ok, ok—you’ve seen this movie before, right? But you really haven’t.

The Way Back sounds like a sports cliché. And it is, in a way that’s pretty unavoidable—especially for any movie that dares to step into the long shadow cast by the iconic Hoosiers (1986). But it’s actually structured around something else, a stirring human drama that transcends its basketball story.

Ben Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, whom we meet on his dead-end construction job in Los Angeles. The first thing we learn about Jack is that he drinks—a lot. He sips during his lunch break. He pops a top in his pickup for the drive home. He gets hammered at a local back-alley pub with his buddies every night. He drinks in the shower as he scrubs off the grime of his job.

We learn that Jack’s sister (Michaela Watkins, who plays Delia on TV’s The Unicorn, and Ali on Get Shorty) is worried about him, his isolation and his excessive drinking; so is his ex-wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar, from The Morning Show).

Then we learn what a hotshot basketball player Jack used to be, back in the 1990s, when he played for a local Catholic high school and took them all the way to the state championship. That’s why he gets a phone call from the parish priest (John Aylward—remember him as Dr. Donald Anspaugh from TV’s ER?) asking him to come back as coach when an emergency leaves the school in a lurch just days before their first game.

TORRANCEJack doesn’t really want to take the gig; he tries to talk himself out of it in half a dozen ways one evening before running out of excuses (and beer), then showing up, somewhat reluctantly, the next morning for the job. That sets the movie’s wheels in motion, and we meet the capable, likeable assistant coach (comedian/actor Al Madrigal), and the team’s chaplain, Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin), who’s soon fighting a losing battle trying to reign in Jack’s salty language and his intensely competitive courtside behavior.

The team is a mixed bag, with barely just enough players to fill out the bench. Kenny (Will Ropp) is a smooth ladies’ man with the cheerleaders; the cocky Marcus (Melvin Gregg, from TV’s Snowfall) has chops, but an attitude that gets him in trouble; Brandon (Brandon Wilson) is held back by a situation at home that affects his performance on the court.

Where this is all headed won’t be surprising to anyone who’s ever watched any sports-themed movie. But again, this movie is about more than basketball. It’s about how Jack finds something—well, himself—on a journey that takes him back to a place where he started, which happens to be his old high school and its basketball court.


Janina Gavankar plays Jack’s ex-wife, Angela.

Why does Jack drink? What dark, almost bottomless emotional hole is he trying to fill? Why did he and Angie divorce? Why did Jack turn down a lucrative, full-ride basketball scholarship, walking away from the game that he once loved?

You’ll find out, eventually. And what you find out will probably dig deeper, and pull harder, on your heartstrings than you’ll likely see coming.

Director Gavin O’Connor worked previously with Affleck for The Accountant (2016), and he found the tender soul of the gritty martial-arts brother-vs.-brother boxing drama Warrior (2011), with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. And he directed the rousing Miracle (2004), about the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team victory over the seemingly invincible Soviets. Here he has a feel not only for basketball—the scenes of high school games look raggedly authentic and genuine, instead of staged and overly dramatic—but also for the bigger, more personal, much more somber drama surrounding it. His early shots of Los Angeles depict a hazy, sprawling, faceless metroplex, which reflects the fog of Jack’s solitude and his booze-saturated apathy.

This is a very personal movie, as it turns out, for Affleck, who has been very forthcoming about his own struggles with alcohol and recovery over the past three years. He was in rehab, in fact, when the film was in pre-production. To say his performance feels authentic, honest, sometimes painful and lived-in is an understatement.

“We can’t change the past, Jack,” a counselor tells him. “What we can do is change how we move forward.”

The Way Back feels like an old-fashioned sports movie, a step back in a way, but also a step forward for a widely accomplished actor—who’s already won two Oscars, for directing (Argo), and screenwriting (Good Will Hunting)—with a statement about who he is, where he is now, and the kind of grownup, emotionally nuanced movies he’s interested in making.

It’s a movie that reminds us that life—like a basketball game—is almost always moving, sometimes very fast, that small decisions can often be the difference between losing and winning, and that little things matter greatly. Jack spurs his team—usually from behind—by telling them to keep up the pressure, that every little thing adds up, and to always be chipping away, chipping away.

“You worked hard to be here,” Jack tells the players at one point, just before a big game. “You earned this.” So has Ben Affleck, and it shows, perhaps in his most personal—and most personal-feeling—movie, and movie role, ever.

The #MeToo Monster

Elisabeth Moss Puts a Timely Gender Flip on Classic Bogeyman Tale

nullThe Invisible Man
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge & Storm Reid
Directed by Leigh Whannell
In theaters Feb. 28, 2020

Now you see him, now you don’t.

That’s how it is with The Invisible Man, a tale that’s been floating around for more than 120 years, ever since British novelist H.G. Wells originally published his sci-fi yarn about a scientist who figured out how to make himself “disappear.”

The invisible man from Wells’ novel reappeared, so to speak, in the classic 1933 “horror” movie and its 1940 sequel, and then numerous times over the decades in other film and TV adaptations. Kevin Bacon put a sinister twist on the see-through saga in the 2000 movie Hollow Man.

In director Leigh Whannell’s chilling new mind-bending update of The Invisible Man, a woman escapes from her abusive, perversely controlling boyfriend one dark and stormy night. But then she begins to be menaced by something she cannot see—and she’s convinced it’s his “invisible” presence.

But, wait now—everyone knows he just committed suicide just a couple of weeks ago, right? Right???

The woman is Cecilia, played by Elisabeth Moss in a powerful, gut-punch performance that reminds you why she received an Emmy for The Handmaid’s Tale, provided such a pivotal role as Peggy Olson on the acclaimed Mad Men, and received raves for her edgy, elemental performances in films like That Smell, The Kitchen and The Square.


Aldis Hodge

Hiding out in the house of a cop friend, James (Aldis Hodge, from TV’s Leverage), and his teenage daughter (Storm Reid), the frightened Cecilia also reaches out to her estranged sister (Harriet Dryer) and tries to get on with her life. But odd, disturbing, spooky, creepy things keep happening. Things that rattle Cecilia, things that mess with her, hurt her, manipulate her—just like her boyfriend used to do.

Cecilia’s senses tell her that somehow, it’s still her boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). “He’s not dead,” she says. “I just can’t see him.”

“Aid will haunt you if you let him,” James tries to reassure her. “Don’t let him.”

In a timely gender shift of how things typically focus in mad-scientist movies, Cecilia—not Adrian, the tech-billionaire founder of a groundbreaking optics company—is the cog at the very center of this one, the nexus of its story. And Moss makes you feel every flayed ounce of her frustration, brokenness and pain, especially when no one will believe that Adrian can still be stalking her, sight unseen.

After all, there’s an urn containing his ashes in the office of his loathsome lawyer brother (Michael Dorman).

It’s no spoiler to say that things go from bad to worse, as the “invisible man” makes Cecilia’s life unbearable, pushing her to the breaking point—and Whannell ratchets up the tension scene by scene, showing off the chops he fine-tuned collaborating with horror maestro James Wan on the Saw and Insidious franchises, and then directing Upgrade (2018), an under-appreciated, futuristic sci-fi action thriller.


And I won’t reveal any of the straight-up shocker-surprises and twists, but there are a couple of doozies, especially as Cecelia learns she’s going to have to take matters into her own hands, and then does. It’s a monster movie for the #MeToo movement, a creep show about toxic masculinity and how abused women are often told they’re crazy—and to blame for their own scars, both inside and out. It’s a fine-tuned freak-out with a timely twist, gender-flipped in perfect synch and step with the real-world parade of women who are just now, finally, getting their day in court—and their vindication—with disgraced movie magnate Harvey Weinstein.

Pay close attention to everything you see on screen, because it all pays off in the end.

With a less-is-more filmmaking approach, director Whannell gets maximum jolt-age out of minimum effects, relying instead on the primal fear of the unknown—and the power of the unseen. There are some bust-up, knock-about fight scenes with the invisible assailant, including one in which he impressively dispatches an entire hall full of security guards.

James’ nickname for Cecelia is “C,” which sounds, of course, like “see.” It’s a subtle little inverted twist on what she can’t do—see what’s watching her, what’s tormenting her. And no one else can see it, either. And seeing, after all, is believing.

Cecelia and Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man make for a gripping golly-whopper psycho-thriller of a horror show, one in which a woman finally makes everyone else “see”—and believe—what’s she’s known, and felt and experienced, all along. Ain’t it the truth?