The Way Back

So where have we seen this movie before? Oh yeah, in 1986 a little film called Hoosiers chronicled the true story of a team coached by a man with a checkered past, assisted by a town drunk who loves basketball. Combine both of those characters into Jack Cunningham, played by Ben Affleck, and the result could be The Way Back.
The number of similarities between the two films is noteworthy: a player who is ejected from the team for bad behavior but is later allowed to return, a team with only five players, one of whom is small in stature, a coach with anger issues who is ejected from a critical game, the need to keep alcoholic adults away from the players, and an unlikely come-from-behind championship win.
This movie is actually two films in one. The first is the above mentioned basketball story, an exciting sports movie that has you cheering for the awakening underdogs. The second is the overarching personal drama of Jack Cunningham, the best player from the best team ever to play at Bishop Hayes high school in California. Jack’s alcoholism is made abundantly clear in the opening scenes of the film. He drinks about a case and a half of beer while wrestling with his response to the request by Father Edward (John Aylward) to lead the school’s foundering team following the sudden heart attack suffered by the current coach.
Jack is a construction worker, separated from his wife for a year, daily drinking himself unconscious at a local bar where a friend of his father’s dutifully helps him home. Jack’s relationship with his father is one of the demons that has him medicating himself. But there are others, as we discover later in the film.
Ben Affleck is no stranger to drink. His own three tours through rehab and a divorce from actress Jennifer Garner provide more than adequate resources to draw upon for the role of Jack. Affleck’s acting here is powerful, convincing and heart wrenching. Jack is struggling with demons far greater than alcoholism and others revealed early in the film. And as is the case with many who suffer from the disease, Jack has to bottom out before he’ll get help. But just when you think he’s reached his low point, he’s taken down another level, and then another.
In yet another plot line, a dedicated but withdrawn player named Brandon reminds Jack of his younger self. They are both the best player on their respective teams, and they both suffer from low self-esteem fueled by their fathers.
There’s lot’s of profanity in The Way Back, to the chagrin of the team chaplain, played by Jeremy Radin. Try as he might, Father Mark can’t get Jack to stop swearing in front of the boys. And the boys seem to respect and respond to Jack’s verbal assaults.
Throughout the story, Jack’s family and friends “check up on him” in a sort of piecemeal intervention that fails to shake him out of his depressed and deeply angry state. It becomes clear that alcohol did not break up his marriage. The breakup was collateral damage to something far worse.
As exciting as the sports story in The Way Back eventually becomes, this is not a cheery movie. There’s no need to rush out and see it, but it’s definitely worth the price of admission.

The Way Back (2020) runs 1 hour 48 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?  

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker

In one of the early scenes in the latest Star Wars movie, a lively and colorful festival is in progress. It is a festival that happens once only every 42 years. Well, that’s interesting, since 1977 is 42 years ago and that’s when the original entry into this space opera debuted.
I’m sure there are tons of hidden gems like this for hardcore fans. I’m one of the rare individuals who was disappointed by the original film, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. I found it to be less cerebral than I’d anticipated, with more of a Flash Gordon feel, which was actually writer and producer George Lucas’s intent. It was certainly not THX 1138 or Dune, but both of those bombed at the box office, so I am clearly in the minority. The Star Wars franchise began with a blockbuster movie and spun film, merchandising and theme park gold ever since.
In preparation for seeing this final chapter in Lucas’s planned trilogy of trilogies, I watched all eight of the previous episodes on Disney Plus. That’s a big investment of time, but I’m glad I did it. It gave me perspective and some necessary history going into the concluding two plus hours. Yes, you can see this as a stand-alone science fiction drama, but the continuing characters, settings and multi-generational familial histories inform the emotions and actions of the heroes who love and hate and battle across a galaxy far, far away.
I am not going to attempt a recounting of the entire nine-part saga here. But it’s important to know that the first film in 1977 was actually the fourth part, followed every few years by another until the middle of the story was complete. After a sixteen year break in 1999 came parts 1-3, a prequel that seemed much darker and less enjoyable. These continued the every-few-year schedule until there was another long pause. Finally, in 2015 the series began wrapping up on a faster two-year sequence with new characters that featured a female heroine and direction twice by science fiction film phenomenon J. J. Abrams. When Lucas spoke publically about his intent to serialize nine movies in this way, I thought it would never happen, and I’m sure others doubted it as well.
The look back I just completed might be experienced differently by a younger generation of fans. At the time, in the late 1970s, the special effects for Star Wars Episode IV were groundbreaking and breathtaking. But the scripting and acting are quite corny by modern standards. There are cringe-worthy scenes between Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and Harrison Ford as Han Solo that the MeToo movement would find stomach-turning. By the ninth episode, a strong, unsexualized female hero (Daisy Ridley) initiates the only kiss in the film, and a space pirate (Oscar Isaac) who asks if he can kiss a girl from his past is turned down, twice. This, in contrast to Ford’s clumsy lust for the helpless, adoring and bikini clad Fisher from 1977. Things have changed.
I found that some of the most noteworthy and consistent stars of the series were the spaceship the Millenium Falcon and two androids, R2D2 and C3PO. Chewbacca, the “Wookie” also was a loyal and lovable beast for 42 years. Cameos and guest appearances by now aged veterans of the early films are a fun addition. Sets, special effects, crafts and creatures are incredibly imaginative and beautifully produced.
Carrie Fisher’s death after the filming of episode eight presented enormous challenges for the ninth film, which was not yet scripted. A combination of a search of her entire audio catalog from previous films, clever shots filmed from her back, outtakes from other films, digital editing and strategically scripted scenes allowed her to continue as Leia Organa in the final film.
Ultimately this film feels a lot like the others. There are spectacular chase scenes, shooting battles on the ground and in space, and of course frequent light saber duels. Good versus evil continues to be represented by the light side of The Force against the dark side, always bringing us to the edge of our seats when all seems lost and relief when a miraculously timed rescue or intervention saves the day. Each film introduces an adorable little character ripe for a plush toy or action figure. In this case it is Babu Frik, a twelve-inch tall android circuitry wizard that required four puppeteers and an animatronic head to operate.
This film brings closure to a chapter in movie and American history. It has been like family to adoring fans, and I’m sure brings a sense of sadness at being over. I felt a bit of this myself, thinking back on the young man who went to see the first film in 1977. That 23 year old had no cell phone, computer, Internet or streaming television. They would not be invented for years. And now, at 65, he can watch all of these movies in bed late at night on a little device that pulls images out of the air, gorgeous images with spectacular audio transmitted without wires to little devices in his ears. Star Wars may have taken place long ago and far away, but so did my twenties. I miss them both.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) runs 2 hours 22 minutes and is rated PG-13.
Should I see this movie?  


Fantasy Island

Ultimately, this is the “Tattoo” origin story. It just takes far too long to find that out. This is a low budget reimagining of the 1978 TV show by the same name that ran for an unbelievable six years. Launching off of the even more unbelievable success of The Love Boat’s eventual ten years at sea, this represents a dry period in the history of television, despite the vast waters that surrounded each show. Both ran concurrently with the long-running comedy game show Hollywood Squares. These were simpler times, and the shows all provided a home for minor celebrities of the day.
 Mister Roarke is back, but instead of the suave and sophisticated Ricardo Montalban, we now have the rather sleepy and thuggish looking Michael Peña who has played Ponch in the movie version of CHIPS and Enrique 'Kiki' Camarena in the Netflix series Narcos. He does an adequate job with the script but is unconvincing as the docent of a living island with magical powers. He is clearly bored and feeling trapped. 
Blumhouse Productions has fun along the way, imbuing this fun and harmless concept with enough creepy horror and effects to satisfy the bloodlust of their usual fans. In the opening credits a distorted sampling of the original Fantasy Island theme can be heard. The classic phrase, “The plane, the plane” is repeated several times in case you don’t immediately understand the filmmaker’s humorous new approach. 
Of course, a seaplane full of eager victims arrives at the island hoping to live out their deepest fantasy, as expressed in a single page letter to Mr. Roarke. He has been busily preparing the Island to receive the guests and programing each scenario to “play out to its full conclusion.” Well, that’s kinda sinister! And sure enough, the fantasies all turn into nightmares and begin to intertwine with each other in a completely confusing manner. No, it’s not pretend, and yes, you can die on Fantasy Island. 
But then, you may at some point just be dying to get into your car and go home. But wait, the big reveal is at the very end of the film. I won’t spoil it here, but unless you’ve been missing Herve Villechaize for almost two hours, it’s okay if you miss it. 
 I’ve recently been informed that Roger Ebert never told people NOT to see a film, out of respect for the significant effort it takes to get a movie produced and released. But seriously, if you need a few groceries or some gas for your car, your money would be better spent on either of those tangibles. And I’m not Roger Ebert, I'm your friend.

Fantasy Island (2020) runs too long and is rated PG-13
Should I see this movie?  

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Marvel fans are pushing this film to huge box office receipts. I’m not sure it’s deserved.  I recommend that you see  Iron Man 3  before see...