REVIEW: “The Way Back” (2020)

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So to be clear, this isn’t 2010’s “The Way Back”, Peter Weir’s terrific survival adventure starring Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, and Ed Harris. And this isn’t “The Way Way Back”, the 2013 coming-of-age indie and Sam Rockwell showcase. This is in fact 2020’s “The Way Back”, a deeply personal and emotionally intense character study disguised as an uplifting sports drama.

Most sports movies follow a pretty familiar blueprint and in some ways this film is no different. But the best sports movies work because they capture the human element. In “The Way Back”, the sports stuff follows the usual formula and it’s the human element that indeed stands out. In fact you could say that basketball is simply a meaningful plot mechanism helping to tell the story of a broken man on the precipice of self-destruction.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck gives one of the best performances of his career playing Jack Cunningham, a construction worker who recently separated from his wife Angela (a terrific Janina Gavankar). Early in the movie we learn Jack is a raging alcoholic and the film puts a lot of effort into effectively emphasizing how far he has spiraled. Disconnected and out of sorts, Jack’s dependency on alcohol as a means to quell his suffering only intensifies as we learn more about him.

But a ray of light comes in the form of a phone call from his Catholic high school alma mater. Jack was a star player back in the day. Now they want him to come back and take over the team after their head coach suffers a heart attack. He reluctantly agrees and soon finds himself once again enjoying the game he had left behind.

But director Gavin O’Connor (who worked with Affleck on “The Accountant”) and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby keep their film from succumbing to formula. Yes, much of the sports angle rings familiar. But one of the best things about the story is how it blows by the expected ending, skipping the easy out and staying true to its character-driven convictions. Basketball doesn’t miraculously heal Jack. It points him in the right direction, but his demons don’t magically disappear. The filmmakers wisely avoid the sentimental cop out.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

You can’t help but sense an almost autobiographical vibe with Affleck’s performance. Considering his own real-life battles you could see this role as being therapeutic. Affleck fully commits himself and the honesty he brings lets you know he’s pulling from an intensely personal place. Gavankar is a great counterbalance. In their few scenes together her restrained, emotionally delicate approach adds a special layer to their relationship. It’s clear Angela is hurting too and Gavankar does a great job of conveying it.

As O’Conner showed with 2011’s “Warrior”, he’s no stranger to subverting the traditional sports drama. He does it again here on the back of a powerful, unflinching Ben Affleck performance. The sports stuff bops along in predictable fashion and some of the lightheartedness that comes with it doesn’t always land. But when focused on Affleck (which it mostly is) the movie shines and it smartly leans into the actor’s own experiences. It doesn’t offer clean and simple answers, but it does believe in second chances. Regardless of whether you’re a down-and-out construction worker/basketball coach or an immensely talented middle-aged actor.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

 

REVIEW: “Waiting for Anya” (2020)

ANYAposterThe World War 2 drama “Waiting for Anya” comes from a 1990 British children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo (who also penned “War Horse”). It follows a happy young shepherd boy who is forced to grow up too soon after the ripple effect of the war makes its way to his quiet village. Directed and co-written by Ben Cookson, this film adaptation has young people in mind, so those expecting an visceral and detailed study on the horrors of the Holocaust could be disappointed.

The story is set in the mountain village of Lescun in the southern most region of France. It’s 1942 and as the Nazis occupy Paris and began rounding up Jews throughout the north, the more isolated south go about their daily routines, unaffected by the war or its atrocities. Cookson’s camera relishes in the beauty of the Pyrenees, painting an idyllic portrait of country living. But as many of the villagers carry on life-as-usual, little do they know the war has already touched their community.

Our point-of-view comes through the tender observations of Jo (played by Noah Schnapp of “Stranger Things”). He has been given the responsibility of tending his family’s sheep after his father (Gilles Marini), a French soldier, is captured by the Germans and thrown into a POW camp. After a scary brush with a black bear, Jo runs into a kind but mysterious stranger named Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt).

Jo learns that Benjamin is a Jew who escaped from a train bound for a concentration camp with his young daughter Anya. The two were separated and Benjamin now hides out on a remote farm helping his widowed mother-in-law Horcada (Anjelica Huston) smuggle Jewish children across the border into Spain. His hopes are that one day his daughter will be among the children sent their way.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

As Germany gets wind of Jews being moved across the border, they dispatch a small platoon of soldiers who occupy the village and begin patrolling the nearby mountain paths. Obviously this threatens Benjamin and the children he is tasked with leading to safety. It also brings the realities of war to Jo’s front door in a way that changes his life forever.

In addition to Oscar-winner Huston several other familiar faces show up adding to the collection of good performances. The always reliable Jean Reno plays Jo’s percipient and seasoned grandfather while Thomas Kretschmann plays a German officer with some semblance of a conscience following his own personal family tragedy. But it comes down to Schnapp and his ability to sell us on his character. While there are times where he could inject more emotion, as a whole he provides us a solid anchor.

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Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

On its surface “Waiting for Anya” is an heartfelt and well-meaning wartime drama. At its core it is a study of humanity as seen through a pair of young eyes. It’s about growing up, finding courage, and doing the right thing in the face of unspeakable evil. The story begins with a terrified shepherd boy running from a bear and leaving his helpless sheep behind. It’s a rather obvious but earnest metaphor for what he becomes – a courageous young man who risks his life to help the helpless.

When it comes to the Holocaust there have been few age-appropriate film examinations for young viewers. “Waiting for Anya” helps fill that void. Some are sure to see the film as too sanitized and not harsh enough in its depictions. But Cookson tells a very specific story that doesn’t need to visually emphasize the horrors. Instead their effects are felt through a story which may sag a little in the middle but ultimately pays off.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Waves” (2019)

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Three movies into his young yet impressive filmmaking career, Trey Edwards Shults has already showed a reoccurring interest. All three of his movies have the element of family at their center. His debut “Krisha” dealt with a deeply troubled and self-destructive woman attempting to reconcile with her family. “It Comes at Night” was a bit more opaque but dealt with a family trying to survive during a deadly outbreak. And now “Waves”, his most dense and thoughtful examination yet.

Right out of the gate you notice the confidence of the filmmaker and you quickly get the sense that “Waves” is going to be a movie full of ambitious choices. The unique visual language, the blossoming color palette, the entrancing score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor – it all speaks to a very precise vision Shults (once again serving as both writer and director) has for his movie.

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The story begins in a happy place. Tyler Williams (a terrific Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has everything going for him. He’s a high school senior and an accomplished wrestler. He has a stern but loving father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and a compassionate, supportive stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). He has a great relationship with his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and he’s crazy about his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie).

But “Waves” shows that even a life full of promise and security can change in a snap. For Tyler it starts with a serious shoulder injury that not only could threaten his senior season but his collegiate career. Instead of sharing it with his parents he starts popping pain meds, a bad decision that opens the door to several more. And when Alexis reveals she may be pregnant, Tyler crumbles and his downward spiral begins. Like a wave his seemingly perfect life crashes and the ripple-effect is felt throughout his entire family.

Through some brilliantly controlled pacing, Tyler’s unsettling decline intensifies before finally reaching an inevitable crescendo at the film’s halfway mark. Up to that point Shult’s gives us his best work to date before shifting to a much more subdued second half. With the exception of one scene Tyler vanishes and the focus moves to Emily. The effects of his story angle are still present, but the tension is dialed back considerably and the sudden change in direction is a bit deflating.

It’s not that the scenes with Emily are bad. Taylor Russell is a revelation and exudes the sweet and earnest qualities of her character. And in many ways what Shults is doing is impressive. In most of the film’s first half Emily is essentially lost in the background of her brother’s accomplishments, something that often happens to kids with a more accomplished sibling. But too much time is spent developing a not-so-interesting side relationship between Emily and her quirky new boyfriend (played by Lucas Hedges). While these scenes do open Emily up for us, they still left me longing for the far more potent fractured family moments.

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Despite losing some momentum, Shults manages to pull it all together in a final 30 minutes that could be perceived as schmaltzy in a lot of other movies. But here it feels completely earned and offers a welcomed glimmer of hope. It works because Shults does such a good job giving us deep, layered characters. All four members of the Williams family are fully developed and have their own set of complexities. It would be easy to single out Ronald as the antagonist, but Shults’ script is far too savvy and his character treatment demands more than a simple surface reading.

“Waves” leans heavily on the performances and this is some of the best ensemble work of the year. Brown, Goldsberry, Harrison Jr., and Russell are superb fleshing out their complicated family dynamic while also giving us compelling individual characters to connect with. Shults gives them some meaty material to work with while also using distinct visual and sound flourishes to enhance the atmosphere. Some second half plotting keeps “Waves” from being a truly great film, but Shults has once again shown himself to be a shrewd and audacious storyteller.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

Bergman 101 : “Winter Light” (1963)

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The second film in Ingmar Bergman’s inadvertent Trilogy of Faith is “Winter Light” and it is easily the most pointedly spiritual of the three movies. The film centers on a tortured pastor in the midst of an existential crisis. And if you thought “Through a Glass Darkly” had a tight focus, “Winter Light” narrows its scope even further. Here the story revolves around one man and his struggle to find meaning in his life.

Bergman made nineteen movies with Gunnar Björnstrand and here the Stockholm born actor plays Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a small rural church. The film begins with Tomas leading his minuscule flock in their Sunday morning church service. Only a handful of parishioners are present including a fisherman named Jonas (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom). Also there is Märta (Ingrid Thulin), a local schoolteacher and former love interest of Tomas who has essentially become a thorn in his side.

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Throughout this thirteen-minute opening we watch as the parishioners sing hymns and take communion. Bergman and his long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist deftly use their camera to not only capture the solemnity of the service but also to reveal the burdened souls of the people. This is conveyed mostly through a series of intense close-ups which Bergman so often employed in his films. Frequent cuts move us from one somber face to another, only occasionally interrupted by shots of Tomas carrying out his ecclesiastical duties.

Just like “Through a Glass Darkly” this story unfolds within a 24-hour window. The opening church service scene sets things in motion and does more than just convey the troubled state of the congregation. It also serves as an introduction to the people Tomas will encounter on more personal levels throughout the film. Bergman uses those interactions to dig deeper into Tomas’ psyche which is in many ways a mirror of his own. Bergman is essentially wrestling with the very same questions, uncertainties, and isolation.

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Tomas is in a miserable state. He is physically ill (it’s said Björnstrand actually had the flu during filming). He is emotionally detached. And he is as spiritually cold as the snowy Scandinavian winter. But Tomas isn’t necessarily a sympathetic figure. At one point he is asked what’s troubling him. His two-word response, “God’s silence.” Yet he too is silent when it comes to speaking grace and guidance to those who seek it. Instead he greets all with an icy indifference.

Take Jonas, deeply distressed over specific world events, who comes to the pastor seeking counsel. Yet all Tomas does is speak of his own misery and inner-tumult. Could it be that he too is crying out for help? Perhaps. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jonas is left a victim of Tomas’ self-absorption. And his treatment of Marta reveals even more about him. Despite her annoyances, Marta truly loves Tomas and shows genuine concern. But his bitter, spiteful responses to her shows an antipathy completely at odds with the compassion of his calling.

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It would be tempting to look at “Winter Light” through a broad lens – as simply a movie about a pastor who has lost his way. But anyone familiar with Bergman’s catalog knows he doesn’t work strictly on a surface level. That’s why this is such a fascinating film and one of my favorite Bergman pictures. There are innumerable ways you could interpret this film and its characters. Is it a movie about a wayward soul suffocating under the weight of depression? Is the film challenging what it sees as strict tenets of the Christian faith? Is it Bergman’s portrait of his father, a Lutheran minister to the masses but harsh disciplinarian at home?

With “Winter Light” Bergman has made something that has all the exterior markings of a slow, uneventful drama. But underneath its austere finish is a provocative think piece; a movie with the sheer depth of meaning to challenge any thoughtful viewer. It’s bleak and dour perspective won’t be for everyone. Nor will its ruminative pacing. But it’s far from aimless and what you get out of it will largely depend on what you bring to it.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

 

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5star

REVIEW: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

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Over a year ago I was at a very special event that featured a Q&A with none other than Richard Linklater. It was a great evening listening to a favorite filmmaker of mine talk about making movies. Close to the end of his session he hinted at his most recent project, a movie starring Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. That’s all he said, but it was enough to spark my interest.

It turns out the movie was “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”, an adaptation of the 2012 best-selling novel by Maria Semple. In it Blanchett plays disillusioned misanthrope Bernadette Fox. She pretty much hates everyone save her daughter Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson) and her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup). In fact her general negativity and social anxiety leads her one friend and mentor (Laurence Fishburn) to label her a “menace to society”.

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Bernadette is a character perfectly tuned for Cate Blanchett. She’s smart, neurotic, and a ticking emotional time bomb. These are characteristics Blanchett can convey in her sleep. It’s a vibrant, even dominating performance that may be a little too big for some tastes. I found her to be captivating and an essential reason the movie works as a whole.

At first the trajectory of the story is a little confusing and there are early moments when it’s tough to figure out what kind of movie Linklater wants to make (he co-wrote the script with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr.). But I realized I had made the mistake of approaching the film as a straight comedy when it really isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, we certainly get dashes of humor scattered throughout. Some of it lands well, some of it not so much. But this was far more dramatic than I expected and once I had a grasp of that the movie began to speak a much more satisfying language.

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Bernadette is an intriguing character from the start and a hard nut to crack (absolutely no pun intended). Her struggles stem from a wide range of personal issues. She was once a famous architect known for her aggressively modern vision and willingness to trust her creative instincts. But when she and Elgin moved to Seattle from LA, his career took off while her fire to create was all but extinguished.

But Bernadette’s descent into cynicism and melancholy isn’t one-dimensional. There are numerous influences and conflicts, both internal and external, that are revealed and play roles in her sometimes fragile state of mind. It all adds a welcomed complexity to the character and keeps Bernadette from becoming some by-the-books stereotype that we often see in movies exploring this same territory.

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Bernadette’s many layers show most through her relationships. This includes her tepid marriage to Elgin, the devoted mother/daughter dynamic with Bee, the testy back-and-forths with her next door neighbor (Kristen Wiig), even her one-sided rants with her online secretary and virtual confidant. But when it all begins to overwhelm her, Bernadette sneaks off on a journey of rediscovery. I’m oversimplifying it for the sake of spoilers, but she vanishes leading Elgin and Bee to pop the question asked in the movie’s title.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a unique and quirky thing that won’t be for everyone. Then again Linklater movies never score big at the box office. And considering it goes up against a brand new animated film, a shameless publicity-hounding raunchy comedy, and a big-budget blockbuster holdover that trend should continue. But I liked a lot about “Bernadette” – Blanchett’s performance, Emma Nelson’s debut, the film’s big heart. I even liked its messiness. That may be a weird compliment, but this is a weird movie, and I guess I like that about it too.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

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Lately we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the works of American horror/mystery writer Shirley Jackson. Much of the thanks could go to Netflix and their popular television adaptation of Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”. Now we have a feature film based on Jackson’s final novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”.

Stacie Passon directs and Mark Kruger writes the screenplay for what is essentially a gothic family drama and mystery thriller mash-up. Set in 1960s New England and with a healthy air of gloom and dread, the story follows two troubled but tight-knit sisters. They live on the huge estate where six years earlier a terrible family tragedy shook them and the nearby village.

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Since then the Blackwood sisters mostly stay isolated within the walls of the mansion left behind by their deceased parents. Constance (Alexandra Daddario) never leaves and a cloud of speculation and rumor hangs over her. Was she responsible for horrible event that struck her family? The prattling, gossipy townsfolk certainly think so. And they let the younger sister Mary Katherine (Taissa Farmiga) know it during her weekly trips for supplies.

The villagers are a major influence on the psychology of the story. Their mean-spirited and scandalous hearsay pushes the sisters to stay in isolation, living alone with their tragedy, their secrets, and their disabled Uncle Julian (Crispen Glover). His semi-coherent ramblings are a mixture of utter nonsense and tiny nuggets of revelation – keys to understanding the mystery behind what happened six years earlier.

While far from ideal, the Blackwood girls have carved out a life for themselves in seclusion. But it’s turned on its head when out of nowhere their cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) pays a visit. He immediately sets his eyes on Constance which puts him at odds with Mary Katherine who is willing to protect her sister at all cost.

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As the story unfolds we end up with multiple layers of mystery. What is Charles’ motivations? What’s with Mary Katherine’s fascination with magic spells (even though there’s no evidence any of her spells work)? And what really happened in Blackwood Manor six years prior? Passon explores these questions by leaning into the characters and the individual strengths of her cast. She provides plenty of atmosphere, manages tone well, and keeps things moving at just the right pace. She then allows room for the performances to shine.

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is a well-made gothic thriller with a surprisingly rich human element. Much of that can be attributed to Jackson’s novel which was influenced by her own personal experiences. It may be a little light on the thriller side, but it does wrestle with some interesting themes and the overarching air of mystery is quite satisfying.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars