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Non-Review Review: The Way Back

The Way Back is a paint-by-numbers redemption narrative, anchored in a tremendous central performance from Ben Affleck and enriched by its keen observations.

The basic plot of The Way Back will be familiar to most audience members. Jack is an alcoholic construction worker who is struggling to hold his life together. He has learned to do just enough to remain functional, but not so much that the people around him haven’t noticed his struggles. Jack stubbornly refuses any assistance offer by his family or by his ex-wife, believing that he has found something resembling an equilibrium. His addiction has pushed him into a slow and noticeable decline, but he has yet to implode.

He’s Backfleck.

Almost entirely by chance, Jack finds himself drafted back to his old high school, emotionally blackmailed into coaching their basketball team. Jack had played basketball as a teenager, but gave up on the sport in much the same way that he has recently withdrawn from the world around him. Inevitably, through his coaching, Jack finds himself connected with the lovable misfits that he takes under his wing. Jack guides these young men towards sporting glory, helping them (and himself) to find purpose in what they are doing.

It is all very conventional. There are very few surprises in The Way Back, which feels almost like one of those well-executed manoeuvres that Jack has his team execute out of the court. Everything lines up, all the pieces are moved with purpose, and the end result is never really in doubt. However, The Way Back elevates this well-worn formula with two secret weapons. Most obviously, Affleck finds an intersection of his traditional movie-star charisma with the baggage of his star persona. More subtly, the film is willing to just observe its characters, to let them be themselves.

Team works.

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Non-Review Review: High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird is a quietly radical movie about a sports agent.

This should not be a surprise. Director Steven Soderbergh is a director fascinated with systems, particularly capitalist systems. Unsane might have taken the form of a trashy and tacky nineties thriller, but it was primarily interested in exploring the horrors of a psychiatric industrial complex. Side Effects touched upon the way in which pharmaceutical companies and legal systems work. Contagion was a story about structural responses to a viral infection that spread rapidly through an increasingly interconnected world.

Managing the situation.

With that in mind, it makes sense that Steven Soderbergh’s movie about the NBA lockout of 2011 would feature very little actual basketball. Sure, footage of games plays on several of the large flatscreens adorning bar or office walls, but it’s just window dressing. Just when it looks like Soderbergh might actually show a game, he cuts away dramatically to a shot of a billionaire’s daughter carrying her dog on board a private jet, flanked by two helpful staff holding umbrellas to protect her from the wind. High Flying Bird is about basket ball as an institution, but not a sport.

A cynic would argue that  High Flying Bird is about basket ball in the same way that the NBA is about basket ball, interested in institutions and structures more than the actual sport itself. Such a cynic would be right at home in the world of High Flying Bird, where characters talk freely and repeatedly about the  “game that’s been played behind the game”, “the game that they made over the game”, or “a game on top of a game.” Professional basket ball is not about basket ball, High Flying Bird argues coherently and consistently. Professional basket ball is about profiting off basket ball.

“What are you doing here?”
“Beatz me.”

High Flying Bird is drawn from a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is perhaps best known for working on the story for Moonlight with Barry Jenkins. Indeed, the cast is anchored by Moonlight co-star André Holland. High Flying Bird recalls Moneyball, in that it is a film about sport that does not feature sport, understanding that the activity does not exist in a vacuum. For High Flying Bird, professional basket ball is about money and power and race, and the real game is being played away from where the camera and the audience is looking.

The only thing that keeps High Flying Bird from being a slam dunk is a lack of focus. High Flying Bird doesn’t entirely trust its cast and its premise to hold the audience’s attention through all of these conversations about abstract concepts layered upon abstract concepts placed over a game that the film only shows in the background. As a result, McCraney and Soderbergh crowd out the story with subplots designed to generate human interest; a tragic back story, an emerging romance. These elements ultimately distract from the most interesting aspects of the film.

This screenshot is also about capitalism. Somehow.

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41. Crossover (-#35)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The Bottom 100 is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, a trip through some of the worst movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Preston A. Whitmore II’s Crossover.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 35th worst movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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