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Movie Reviews
'The Way Back'
(R / 108 mins / Warner Bros.)

Overview: Back in high school, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had everything going for him. A basketball phenom, he could have punched his ticket to college or even the pros, but, instead, he chose to walk away from the game, forfeiting his future.

Jack's glory days are long gone, but, as it turns out, not forgotten. Years later, he gets the chance to take back his life when he is asked to coach the struggling basketball team at his alma mater.

Jack reluctantly accepts, surprising no one more than himself, and as the boys start to come together as a team and win, he may get his last shot at redemption.

Verdict: Ben Affleck’s struggles with addiction has been headline fodder for years, along with that back tattoo.

So it’s tempting to read his performance as an alcoholic has-been in his latest film 'The Way Back' as some sort of on-screen avatar for his personal demons.

At the very least, it lends an authenticity to his character – you believe that Affleck has looked at that glass of amber beer with self-loathing, before all restraint went out the window and despair took over.

Whatever 'The Way Back’s faults – and there are a few – Affleck is not the problem. His performance is a low-key, convincing turn imbued with pain and frustrations. Above all, you sense that this character is tired, exhausted from everything that’s been thrown at him.

His choices never feel overwrought, where previously in his earlier career he might’ve been tempted to dial it up 20 per cent.

It makes Affleck’s character incredibly sympathetic and you don’t judge him for his choices, even as he’s cleaning out a fridge-full of beer in a one-night bender.

It’s a shame then that 'The Way Back' as a whole couldn’t match the calibre of Affleck’s performance.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor, the movie is centered on a construction worker, Jack (Affleck). He’s divorced, lives in an untidy, sad apartment and ends every night either drinking alone at home or at a rundown bar where the owner keeps refilling his glass.

He’s isolated himself from his family, including his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins), who doesn’t know how to help him.

Out of the blue, he gets a call from his old high school, where as a student he was a star basketball player whose flair on the court earned the team state championships and him a full scholarship to university, even though he didn’t take up the post.

The school needs a head coach, and they want Jack. The team is a ragtag group of boys with some raw talent but little focus – and they’ve been on a losing streak.

Up against better teams, Jack’s hand sees them fighting back, and he instills hope in these boys, especially the taciturn Brandon (Brandon Wilson) who has a natural instinct for the game.

Ergo, 'The Way Back' is essentially two movies.

There’s the fairly generic underdog sports movie in which the dismissed team proves their mettle – complete with training montages and fast-paced game sequences.

There’s value in the basketball scenes in that the teens are likeable if underdeveloped as characters. But there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.

Then there’s the alcoholism movie in which Jack is just trying to deal with the day-to-day of living with this addiction, which we’re led to believe spawns from his father and a tragedy revealed midway through the story.

'The Way Back' feels disjointed because it doesn’t weave the two plots together very well. When the team starts to do well, the drinking seems to subside, or at least it’s not shown on screen.

Maybe that’s how it works – Affleck should know – but it doesn’t make for a consistent narrative jumping around in tone.

O’Connor’s directing style varies from un-showy to occasionally hokey, resorting to too much slow-motion or cheesy fade-outs.

In closing, 'The Way Back' is a humdrum movie saved from complete tedium by an affecting Affleck performance.





'Bloodshot'
(PG-13 / 108 mins / Columbia Pictures)

Overview: Based on the bestselling comic book, Vin Diesel stars as Ray Garrison, a soldier recently killed in action and brought back to life as the superhero Bloodshot by the RST corporation.

With an army of nanotechnology in his veins, he's an unstoppable force -- stronger than ever and able to heal instantly. But in controlling his body, the company has sway over his mind and memories, too.

Now, Ray doesn't know what's real and what's not -- but he's on a mission to find out.

Verdict: You can’t stop Bloodshot, you can only hope to contain him.

Your knives and bullets and grenades and speeding trucks will slow him down, but he’ll just keep coming until he has settled that score, righted that wrong, avenged that injustice.

In fact, there might be only one thing on this Earth that can stop Bloodshot — and that’s the screenplay for 'Bloodshot.'

Yep, that did the trick.

Frantically overcooked, bursting with headache-inducing, rapid-cut action sequences and only half as clever as it fancies itself, 'Bloodshot' is an ambitious and intermittently entertaining minor-league superhero film; with Vin Diesel grunting and grimacing his way through the title role while the supporting players around him are saddled with playing overly familiar, cliché-riddled stock types.

Kudos to director David S. F. Wilson and writers Jeff Wadlow and Eric Heisserer for occasionally having a character actually remark on certain hackneyed elements of the plot — but far more often, everyone is just going through the motions as the story becomes ever more convoluted and ever less worthy of our emotional investment.

There is a moment in 'Bloodshot' when Vin Diesel and a psycho bad guy are duking it out in slow motion. (I don’t want to spoil certain plot developments by naming the other actor.) This gives them both the opportunity to overact.

In slow motion!

Diesel is squarely in his narrow comfort zone as Ray Garrison, a badass Marine who has accumulated some horrific scars on various tours of duty — but Ray always manages to come home to his adoring wife Gina (Talulah Riley). That’s what he tells her when she embraces him in sun-dappled shots right out of a Michael Bay movie.

But then one night, the obligatory squad of mercenaries ambushes Ray and Gian, and they’re both assassinated -- or are they?

Ray wakes up in one of those sleek, high-tech, multi-story, super-secret labs we see in the movies. Thanks to the genius Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce) and his team of technicians, Ray has been brought back to life via super-powerful nanites injected into what was once his bloodstream (hence the name Bloodshot).

But wait, there’s more! Ray is now super-strong and has the power to immediately rejuvenate, sort of like the cyborg in 'Terminator 2.' Ah, but he’s lost his memory and he’s forced to keep on living the same day (with certain variations) over and over again, like Drew Barrymore in '50 First Dates.'

Sucks to be Ray!

Pearce’s Dr. Harting is a sadistic genius who has grand plans to weaponize his creations. (Never heard that one before.) Oh, and he has a titanium arm that includes the most advanced remote control you’ve ever seen.

Just by pushing a few buttons on his magic arm, Harting can find Ray anywhere in the world, or close the breathing apparatus keeping alive Eiza Gonzalez’s K.T., who we’re told is a “former NAVY swimmer” and is getting too close — too close, I tell ya! — to Ray.

If Dr. Harting ever lost THAT remote, boy would he be ticked!

'Bloodshot' has a pretty nifty twist about halfway through, but then it’s back to the bombastic sermonizing from Dr. Harting, who has a serious case of God Complex after bringing Ray back to life, followed by yet another effects-laden, quick-cut, loud and amazingly uninvolving action sequence.

By the time our man/machine finds himself in the time-honored pickle of dangling by one hand from a ledge 50 stories above the ground, 'Bloodshot' has already given us an action movie hangover!





'Onward'
(PG / 114 mins / Goalpost Pictures)

Overview: Set in a suburban fantasy world, Disney-Pixar's "Onward" introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there.

Verdict: Disney/Pixar’s biggest enemy is itself. Because of the studio’s track record, which spans from Toy Story to Coco, worthy films like Onward can seem disappointing in comparison to the studio’s greatest hits.

But there’s still plenty to love in the animation studio’s latest and, if you open yourself to its peculiar charms, enough magical moments to make the cliches disappear.

The first scene sets the tone. As the opening narration begins, we see wizards casting spells in green pastures. “Once upon a time the world was filled with wonder,” says the voice over. Then technology was invented and magic became a thing of the past.

Sound familiar? Pixar specializes in grounding storybook worlds in real-world problems, and this one does so with a sprinkling of pixie dust and dashes of realism.

Now the world is a suburban wasteland. Filled with homes, street lights and parents worried about rent; the place looks like a neorealist version of Dungeons and Dragons. So it’s fitting that our hero isn’t a warrior, but an everyday elf.

With everyday problems like learning to drive on his plate, Ian (Tom Holland) doesn’t seem ready for a cross-country adventure. He doesn’t even seem ready to drive.

But on his 16th birthday mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gifts him dad’s old wizard staff, which has the power to bring paps back to life for 24 hours, and before you can say “abracadabra,” Ian conjures up the bottom half of his father’s body, leaving the other half to be found in a far away land.

And so Ian does embark on a cross-country adventure. With his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), driving the three around in his van, there’s no telling where they might end up. A gas station filled with biker gang fairies? Sure.

A mystical tavern turned family restaurant? Why not? This scene is, after all, a clever self-jab by Disney for what some see as selling out magical ideas for commercialized sequels.

The cleverest conceit, however, is the family dynamics. Between Ian and Barley, there’s a love-hate relationship that any sibling can relate to.

Because director Dan Scanlon pulls from his own experience as a younger brother who lost his father at an early age, the intensity and honesty here transcends animation. The images on screen might not be real, but the emotions feel genuine.

There’s plenty of fun to be had, too. When the boys stuff a sweatshirt and glasses on dad’s sentient legs, he morphs into the animated version of Weekend at Bernie’s.

This makes for some goofy sight gags, as well as the embodiment of Barley’s motto (“You got to work with what you got!”), which becomes the movie’s motto. Since Onward doesn’t have the greatest special effects, it has to work with what it’s got to cast a spell.

What it’s got is the complex and real brotherly love of Ian and Barley. Giving each other words of encouragement, the two set aside their differences to conquer their quest.

By using his father’s staff, Ian turns cheese puffs into river rafts and empty canyons into invisible bridges. One memorable scene sees Ian turn Barley into the size of an action figure.

It would have been nice to see Ian use the staff even more often, but the film has its fair share of magic tricks. The biggest is how Pixar can turn modest plots into astounding adventures.

How can a group of toys hanging out be entertaining? A rat baking pasta riveting? A couple of bros on the open road captivating? The simplest answer is the humanity of its characters.

Ian and Barley’s road trip mirrors many of our own relationship journeys. Many of us spend our whole lives looking for closure that never comes. Thankfully, with luck, whatever god we believe in or little magic, a lot of us do find ourselves.





'Fantasy Island'
(PG-13 / 110 mins / Columbia Pictures)

Overview: In Blumhouse's new spin on Fantasy Island, the enigmatic Mr. Roarke makes the secret dreams of his lucky guests come true at a luxurious but remote tropical resort.

But when the fantasies turn into nightmares, the guests have to solve the island's mystery in order to escape with their lives.

Verdict: Based on the 1970s television show, Blumhouse’s 'Fantasy Island' follows several characters as they arrive at the title locale for several days of literal wish-fulfillment fantasy – with the island, lorded over by Michael Peña’s Mr. Roarke, possessing magical properties that inevitably wind up twisting the heroes’ desires to an often deadly extent.

It’s an off-the-wall yet nifty premise that is, at the outset, employed to fairly promising effect by Jeff Wadlow, as the filmmaker does a decent job of establishing the picture’s decidedly mysterious atmosphere and the various characters that inhabit its picturesque landscape – with, in terms of the latter, Peña delivering a solid turn as the enigmatic Mr. Roarke.

It’s equally clear, however, that Blumhouse’s 'Fantasy Island' doesn’t exactly possess a whole lot in the way of forward momentum, with the somewhat arms-length vibe compounded by a proliferation of perilous events and encounters that may or may not be actually happening (ie: what are the stakes here, exactly?)

The initial emphasis on individual storylines certainly highlights the hit-and-miss nature of Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach, and Wadlow’s screenplay, and although the various subplots eventually do converge, Blumhouse’s 'Fantasy Island' has been saddled with an exceedingly tedious third act that seems to transpire entirely within a dimly-lot cave – which ensures the whole thing peters out to a rather demonstrable degree and cements its place as a periodically watchable yet mostly inert adaptation.





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