‘The Way Back’ Allows Ben Affleck to Meet His Fate as a Washed-Up High School Basketball Coach

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar, Michaela Watkins, Brandon Wilson, Lukas Gage, Melvin Gregg

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Basketball Coaches and Players Struggling to Adhere to a Catholic School Code of Conduct

Release Date: March 6, 2020

Ben Affleck is now at the point in his career where he can play a washed-up, middle-aged high school basketball coach and it is the most natural thing in the world. Honestly, his lead role in The Way Back feels like what he was destined for his whole career. Chip-on-his-shoulder energy has always been a major part of his persona, and now he’s at the age at which it fits most comfortably. He’s taken plenty of lumps, and he’s retreated a bit, but he’s got some loved ones who want him to get back in the game and give it another go. The character of Jack Cunningham is basically the Sad Affleck meme writ large with an even more tragic backstory. He was once the most heralded high school basketball player in the state, but now he spends most of his days in a drunken haze, with his refrigerator stocked entirely with rows of (neatly arranged) beer cans. But then he’s offered the suddenly vacant head coaching job at Bishop Hayes, his Catholic alma mater, and he’s finally motivated to do something he cares about besides wallow around in his misery.

The current state of the Bishop Hayes team is a sick joke compared to what it was in Jack’s heyday. Back then, about a hundred guys tried out for the team, but now, they need to pull up a few guys from the junior varsity squad to even be able to have ten players to run a practice. They’re not without some bright spots, but they’re undersized and outclassed by most of their opponents. They lose their first game with Jack coaching by an unceremonious 36 points, and at that point, it is not clear if this movie will actually be an inspirational story in which they turn it around and start winning. Frankly, it might start to strain credulity a bit too much if they do start challenging for a championship. But The Way Back gratifies viewers who know how basketball works by demonstrating how opportunities open up when you can get past the intimidation factor. Bishop Hayes does indeed start winning, pulling off upsets against ostensibly more talented teams with pressure-filled defense that neutralizes their opponents’ strongest players and by operating offenses that amplify their own strengths. So when that last-second shot in the big game does go through the hoop, the triumph feels legitimate.

But just as The Way Back looks like it is going to wrap up like any other inspirational sports drama, it follows a different, messier strain. Getting back into the game has helped Jack come a long way with his personal rehabilitation, but it hasn’t really addressed what’s eating away at his soul. He and his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) share a deep trauma that he’s nowhere near close to getting over. At a crucial moment, he says, “I never stopped being angry,” and that’s clear enough in every frame without him saying it, but it’s nonetheless powerful to hear it said. The Way Back packs a lot of redemption into an hour and fifty minutes, and I do wonder if these turnarounds will be permanent based on the work we get to see. But the raw, vulnerable energy on display is a blessing to witness.

After one game filled with some profanity-laced tirades, the team’s chaplain gently reminds Jack of the school’s code of conduct, to which Jack replies, considering all the terrible things in this world, does God really give a (not-safe-for-work four-letter word) what he and the boys say? That’s the crux of the matter, that in fact it really does matter how we personally conduct ourselves despite everything awful we’ve been through, and it’s undeniably affecting to witness our fellow humans opening themselves up to that challenge.

The Way Back is Recommended If You Like: Hoosiers, Redemption, Smart coaching

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Comebacks

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Justice League’ is Okay, I Guess

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen

Director: Zack Snyder

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Localized Explosions, Heat Vision Mishaps, and Grotesque Insectoids

Release Date: November 17, 2017

Would you rather have a true auteurist vision that is decidedly ugly and off-putting, or a plainly adequate film with little distinct personality? If you want something to endlessly discuss and theorize about, go with the former. But if you want something to actually watch, go with the latter.

Justice League is perhaps the least Zack Snyder-y film of Zack Snyder’s career. Absent completely is the washed-out color palette. Fabian Wagner’s cinematography is mostly workmanlike, but he does what he can in a limited sandbox, and the result is actually pleasant to look at. Colors are not only present, they’re vibrant! There is an early scene of Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince walking along some lush greenery, and it makes me wish the whole film had just been Justice League Hanging Out in the Park. The action might still fit within Snyder’s kinetic pinball wheelhouse, but it is not as garishly stylized as usual. And because this is a post-Wonder Woman world, the hard-to-be-a-god, brooding cynicism has given way to genuine hopefulness. Really, the only Snyder signature that unequivocally remains is the best one, i.e., the rediscovered rock song scoring the opening credits (this time, it’s Norwegian singer Sigrid’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”).

The main duty of Justice League is finding a way forward after the colossal slog that was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice by way assembling its titular superteam and resurrecting its most iconic member. The returning headliners, namely Affleck’s Batman and Gadot’s Wonder Woman, unquestionably know how to handle this heft. Ezra Miller’s Flash and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman convey their characters economically enough. Ray Fisher could use some more prime time as Cyborg, but it’s an okay start. Overall, it’s refreshing that everyone is eager to team up because they simply recognize how much the entire world is at stake. Isn’t that how superheroes were always meant to be?

As for Superman’s rise from the grave, it isn’t surprising, nor is it meant to be. The (theoretical) fun of it is seeing how it plays out. And on that point, it is fairly entertaining. When Supes comes to, his mind is a bit scrambled, causing him to indiscriminately attack whomever is in the path of his heat vision. Henry Cavill plays it like his body vomiting up the last remnants of Snyder’s inexplicably distasteful take on the Man of Steel. This concession to a lighter version is in fact indicative of the whole Justice League ethos. Finally, the DC Extended Universe is allowed to crack jokes! And I’m not talking glib, Marvel-style one-liners, but actual character moments, like malapropisms and other exposures of vulnerability. Ma Kent (Diane Lane), for one, informs Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that Clark said Lois was “the thirstiest young woman he ever met” (she means hungriest). It’s okay to laugh!

As for the actual story engine, the DCEU is still testing our patience. If this were a pilot episode of a Justice League TV show, it would be fine enough. A little long, but a decent setup. And if you’re in the business of silver linings, that is the best takeaway to come away with here. Future sequels are inevitable, and I can see a roadmap where they might actually be good. The best villains are being saved for later, but this time around the big bad is incredibly perfunctory. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds under a lot of CG) is some sort of gargoyle whose motivation does not go anywhere beyond “try to take over the world.” His army of insect-men is just a nuisance in every capacity. It’s fair to save the best for later, but it helps to actually get to the best at some point.

Justice League is Recommended If You Like: Incremental Improvement

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Doomsday Clocks

SNL Season Finale Recap May 18, 2013: Ben Affleck/Kanye West

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Cold Opening – Politics Nation
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