‘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

Super-Relatable for Runners of All Racing Stripes: ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ Review

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CREDIT: Amazon Studios

Starring: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Micah Stock, Lil Rel Howery, Alice Lee

Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Fun and Sexy Times in Between the Marathon Training

Release Date: August 23, 2019 (Limited)

Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell) has never been much of a fan of exercise, but somehow she finds herself training for the New York City Marathon mere months after she first takes up running. I’ve been running since I was in sixth grade, and my current goal is to complete the 2020 New York City Marathon. Our origins are very different, and yet we are one and the same.

Brittany Runs a Marathon understands certain core tenets about running, particularly that no matter how in shape or out of shape of you, the next challenge is always daunting. And no matter how much running becomes a part of your routine, the next run still feel sublime. That’s important, as it makes up for the fact that much of the non-running moments of this movie are kind of soul-crushing. As we watch Brittany make her way through the gig economy and deal with roommate issues and learn how to be an adult who regularly visits the doctor, we mostly get a cinematic effort that’s about at the level of a dimly lit sitcom, or a dramedy of malaise, or what have you. But when Brittany conquers the huffing and the puffing and the indiscriminate sweat as she makes her way through the five boroughs, a bit of transcendence manages to sneak up on us.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is Recommended If You Like: Cheering on runners of all skill levels

Grade: 3 out of 5 Sweat Patches

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘Brigsby Bear,’ Kyle Mooney Applies His One-of-a-Kind Style to a Rescued Kidnapping Victim

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

Starring: Kyle Mooney, Greg Kinnear, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill

Director: Dave McCary

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for First Times: First Time Doing Hand Stuff, First Time Tripping, First Time Making Dynamite

Release Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited)

It is certainly possible for a film about an escape from kidnapping to be about the triumph of the human spirit. But is it also possible to also make one in which the spirit was never really beaten down in the first place, just slightly confused? Brigsby Bear sure seems to think so. It’s basically what Room would have been if it were a quirky, offbeat comedy. If you’re a fan of writer/star Kyle Mooney, then you have already bought your tickets. If you’re unfamiliar, then let me explain a little more.

Like a lot of young adults who spend most of their time at home, James Pope (Mooney) is obsessed with his favorite TV show. But unlike most TV fanatics, he stays indoors because he has been led to believe that the outside air is toxic, and also unusually, his particular favorite show, “Brigsby Bear Adventures” (a sort of charmingly low-budget live-action spacefaring Saturday morning cartoon) is produced for an audience of one. Because, as it turns out, the people James thinks are his parents actually abducted him when he was a baby. When the authorities track down the compound and return James to his real family, he struggles to move forward in this strange new world. He is able to accept that these people are who they say are, and his social adjustment is relatively smooth, but what really bothers him is the astounding realization that he will never know how the story of Brigsby Bear concludes.

But wait – there is a solution to be had! James decides to put together his own amateur production of a Brigsby Bear film, and the result is a paean to the stirring power of filmmaking. Although… is it perhaps irresponsible to present the story of a kidnapping victim whose recovery consists mainly of a major element from the time of his captivity? It is acceptable that the pull of the familiar, however distorted it may be, cannot be denied (James revisits the bunker in a moment that plays exactly like the return to the shed in Room). And to be fair, every individual captive’s experience is unique. So it is ultimately inspiring to see James’ family and entire community embrace his Brigsby Bear obsession, because they recognize that as strange and as risky as it may be, this is his best chance to recover and flourish. There are certainly discomforting moments (especially in the case of Mark Hamill, who, as James’ impostor father and the man behind Brigsby, toes a tricky line between detestable and genuinely human), but they are among the intrinsic elements that make this story as heartwarming as it is.

Brigsby Bear is Recommended If You Like: Room, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Kyle Mooney’s YouTube/SNL videos

Grade: 4 out of 5 Giant Costume Heads