THE WAY BACK, EMMA, and FIRST COW

THE WAY BACK

Ben Affleck, star of the surprisingly solid THE WAY BACK

When I initially saw the trailer for THE WAY BACK, I rolled my eyes and looked to the person next to me and said, “I know that’ll be terrible but I still have to see it.” Thankfully, it wasn’t terrible and it also wasn’t nearly as cliché as most sports films usually end up being. Though it did stumble at times and did momentarily suffer from instances of triteness and banality, for the most part, THE WAY BACK does just enough to be entertaining, heart-warming, and thoroughly engaging. 

This film is a Ben Affleck star-vehicle, and honestly, it was so refreshing to see Ben Affleck actually try to give a compelling performance again. I’ve always thought Affleck was a slightly underrated actor; he does strong work in ARGO, THE TOWN, and especially GONE GIRL. But he hasn’t had a hit, nor a truly stellar performance, since 2014 (he unfortunately spent the second half of the 2010s starring in the wretched DC universe films as Batman) …. Until now.

Affleck is painful to watch in an incredibly cathartic way. He suffers from alcoholism, depression, and has anger issues, as well as being plagued by past traumas. He’s stoic and gruff at the start of the film and never totally in control of himself, but seeing his motivation to change the lives of the young men around him is effective, and it becomes even more effective when the film lets you realize how much the students are important to his personal growth and how necessary the students are for him to overcome his greatest sorrows.

Affleck (right of center), surrounded by his team

The film does a good job of never becoming too much of a “white savior” film (see: GREEN BOOK), which was certainly a concern I had from the trailer. Instead, it tells the classic tale of the way in which damaged men find redemption through sports, whether it be from playing or coaching and how important it is to have positive role models around them. Though it tells a typical story, it manages to subvert the audience’s expectations more than a few times, too.

Though most of the players Affleck’s character coaches are underdeveloped and never given enough time to become notable, one shines above the rest:  Brandon Wilson as Brandon Durrett, the talented point guard of the team Affleck’s character is coaching. With every action Wilson commits to, there’s a deep sadness masked by a quiet resolve in his eyes, which helps endear him to the audience. Will Ropp and Charles Lott Jr. also do decent work, making the most of their moments of levity, which were absolutely welcomed in such a heavy film.

THE WAY BACK manages to avoid many of the traditional sports-film cliches, while still maintaining the familiarity that comes with the genre

THE WAY BACK isn’t a perfect film, or even an incredible film, honestly. But it is a good movie, with an inspired performance from a lead actor who has been depriving audiences of his potential for the last half-decade. It’s a great return to form and is certainly worth seeing.

3.5/5

EMMA

Anya Taylor-Joy is on the shortlist of actresses I would drop anything to see, regardless if the movie looked like it appealed to me or not. Though her work in the Robert Eggers horror cult-classic from 2015, THE WITCH, may be her most transformative performance, I’ve been absolutely hooked ever since I saw her stunningly calculated performance in THROUGHBREDS (2017). I wasn’t truly clamoring to see EMMA at first, but because of Anya Taylor-Joy’s involvement, I had absolutely no problem making the trip out to catch it.

An alternate cover of EMMA, starring Anya Taylor-Joy

EMMA is the final Jane Austen novel that was published while Austen was still alive. What makes it unique is that most of Austen’s typical leading ladies come from limited means and have to work their way up to achieving a life of pomp and prosperity. Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of EMMA (played by Taylor-Joy), however, is the one protagonist of Austen’s who is a member of the upper-crust from the start of the story.

Taylor-Joy has the most disaffecting and piercing eyes ever, which is utterly perfect for an actress playing a rich 20-year-old brimming with too much confidence that loves meddling in the lives of everybody in her town for pleasure. The true delight in EMMA is watching Taylor-Joy flit from person-to-person as she involves herself in their lives and their struggles, mostly just because she’s looking for something to pass the time and entertain her. And because she is so frequently meddling, she is the catalyst for many comedy-of-errors, sometimes affecting her friends and neighbors, sometimes affecting herself. Hardly any of these sequences fall flat and most of them garnered a laugh or, at least, a chuckle out of me.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s eyes could pierce your soul

Emma is a delightful protagonist (maybe the most fascinating of Austen’s protagonists) because she’s the only one that warrants just as much judgment as she does envy. She is rich and clever and her status is truly never affected, but the most gratifying bit about Emma is how fun it feels to see a character of her stature get put in her place now and then, mostly by her neighbor, Mr. Knightley (played by an emotionally appealing Johnny Flynn). One of the best sequences in the film comes from an instance where Flynn has to chastise Taylor-Joy for humiliating a poor, but kind (bordering on annoying) townsperson.

The costume design by Alexandra Byrne is the most impressive and dazzling technical aspects of the film for sure, but first-time direction from Autumn de Wilde is more than adequate, too. Though there are never any mind-blowing or truly exceptional sequences, the direction is quite consistent and sharp. One of my only legitimate gripes with EMMA was the score from David Schweitzer and Isobel Waller-Bridge. It was omnipresent, lacking in subtlety, and though lush, oftentimes distracting to what was happening on screen.

Anya Taylor-Joy (left) and Bill Nighy (right) in EMMA showing off some of the stellar period-piece costumes

If Hollywood executives were wise enough, they would try and get Anya Taylor-Joy attached to any project seeking a young woman who’s spoiled and moody. There aren’t many actresses alive right now who nail those roles with such conviction.

3.5/5

FIRST COW

FIRST COW, which I saw last week, will unfortunately be the final film I get to watch in theaters for quite some time, due to the Coronavirus pandemic truly beginning to plague society and life as we all know it. Though it feels silly to try and talk about something as “minuscule” as film in moments of great crisis, I can say that it was a very good movie that deserves recognition and warrants being seen eventually.

One of the stars of FIRST COW: Evie the cow

FIRST COW is the quietest film about capitalism and the “American Dream” that I can remember seeing in some time. 2019 provided plenty of great films about capitalism: PARASITE, UNCUT GEMS, FORD V FERRARI, HUSTLERS, etc, etc. But all of those films were rather stressful (understandably) and never understated. FIRST COW is nothing like that. Instead, it’s simple and pensive as it quietly observes two unlikely friends pursuing wealth and acclaim for bringing delicious baked goods to the Oregon territory in the 19th century.

I had a special rooted interest in seeing this film, outside of the fact that I usually really enjoy A24 films and that the first quarter of the year for the film industry is usually a bit of a slog: It starred John Magaro, a graduate from the theatre program that recently became my alma mater, Point Park University. If you’ve seen John onscreen before, you probably saw him in either THE BIG SHORT or ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, but he’s been finding consistent work for a few years now. In FIRST COW, Magaro plays “Cookie” and delivers a powerfully subtle and captivating performance.

John Magaro, giving a performance as quiet as it is riveting in FIRST COW

Kelly Reichardt, the director of FIRST COW, shows extreme patience in the way she crafts her film here. There are moments that may seem mundane or dull, but this is a film that requires attention and focus and if audience’s give it that, they will receive a quite deserved payoff. It’s absolutely what one would call a “slow burn”, especially the first act of the film, which is certainly the slowest, and, perhaps, the weakest act of the film, but, when looked back upon after having experienced the film in its entirety, is extremely necessary and truly lays the groundwork for where the movie takes you.

Though Magaro gives a thoughtful and gentle performance all through the film (some of the most intimate and soothing scenes I’ve ever experienced in any film ever are ones that he shares with a cow), his costar, Orion Lee, who plays King Lu, provides a dynamism and verve that’s the perfect complement to Magaro. As much as FIRST COW is about baking and capitalism and pursuing the “American Dream” (Lee and Magaro form an unlikely friendship and begin making and selling baked goods at a high price because there is a massive demand with no supply until a cow arrives in their area), it’s also about the tenderness that can be found in masculinity and in male friendships.

As lovely as the scenes between Magaro and the cow, Evie, were, his scenes with Lee are stunningly profound. In them, there is a wonderful sense of comfort, peace, and ease. Lee is wide-eyed and ambitious, matter-of-fact, and idealistic. His charisma seems to know no limits, even when other characters make it abundantly clear to him that they wished he wasn’t present. Comparing that with Magaro’s quiet resourcefulness and innate goodness makes for a truly exceptional duo.

Orion Lee (left) as “King Lu” and John Magaro (right) as “Cookie” as they pursue the “American Dream”

There is plenty of tension throughout the film, but it never comes from cheap places or in a way that feels contrived and inauthentic. There is never THAT moment, which comes in plenty of dramas, where friends disagree and fight and eventually reconcile right before the big conclusion. Though sometimes effective, usually that feels like tension for tension’s sake. Instead, FIRST COW features a beautifully portrayed friendship between two men who depend on each other for companionship, compassion, and survival, both economically and otherwise. And the final shot of them together in the film provides a greater and more profound understanding to the prelude of the film, too. It isn’t common in film for male friendships to be portrayed with the level of ease that FIRST COW manages to accomplish, and that alone makes it worth seeing.

Though it will be impossible for anybody to catch this in theaters (for understandable reasons), I genuinely hope that, rather quickly, A24 makes it possible for people to stream or rent FIRST COW from home. Though it was lovely to see it in theaters, it’s absolutely the type of film that can be appreciated in a contained space in solitude. Hopefully you all can see it soon and it will provide you a sense of calm in these trying times.

4.5/5

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