THE WAY BACK (2020)
Whatever the merits of The Way Back, which had the misfortune to be released just as the Covid-19 pandemic/panic closed theaters, it has a shockingly generic title. The title seems to fit, as The Way Back is a shockingly generic film, one filled with tropes, lazy characterizations and pretty bad performances.
Former basketball phenom Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is now a thoroughly dissolute man. Working construction, with an estranged wife and a terrible tragedy revealed as the film goes on, Jack's days begin and end with alcohol (he literally drinks a can of booze while showering). To say he's a functioning alcoholic is putting it mildly: given how much he actually drinks, it's a wonder he can even stand.
Nevertheless, his former Catholic high school thinks Jack will be the perfect coach to the struggling team for the remainder of the season. Jack reluctantly takes this apparently volunteer job (he still goes in to his construction job) and begins to slowly lead his ragamuffin team to victories. However, while it looks like his personal demons and alcoholism are put on hold, another tragedy triggers his own deep one and off the wagon he goes. Eventually forced out due to his alcoholism, Jack goes to therapy and rehab while his team wins one for their Coach Jack.
The Way Back is the first film I saw in an actual theater as movie houses slowly started reopening (don't tell the relatives, who assume anyone going to the movies now will drop dead before the end credits roll). As I watched The Way Back, a certain cynicism took hold thanks to screenwriter Brad Ingelsby's solid determination to make it some kind of inspiring redemption tale. It is not a good sign when, what is meant as a climatic three-point shot that will get Bishop Hayes High School to the playoffs, I started shouting "MISS! MISS!".
The theater was empty, so it was all right.
The Way Back has a lot of tropes that almost make it play like a spoof of these "inspirational" sports films. The entire basketball team is comprised of kids from the Cliched School of Hip-Hop Teens. There's Kenny (Will Ropp) the ladies man who woos three cheerleaders simultaneously, Brandon (Brandon Wilson) the quiet player who is another phenom, Chubs (Charles Lott, Jr.) the jolly one who starts the team with a pre-victory dance, Marcus (Melvin Gregg) the tallest player who begs to return after being thrown off for being late. All the team players are stereotypical trash-talking, casually disrespectful young men who feel free to curse in front of the team's chaplain.
Most of The Way Back's subplot involves Brandon, but even that seems more like an afterthought, as if it was left over from a previous draft. We have a scene where Jack goes to Brandon's father to talk about getting recruited by universities and is instantly rebuffed. It's no surprise that at a climatic game Brandon's father shows up.
Brandon's story, like Jack's alcoholism or the reason behind it, seems to come and go whenever the film needs an injection of drama. Granted, I rarely if ever drink and may not understand Jack's tolerance for alcohol, but I find it incredibly hard to believe one scene where he apparently finished off what might have been a twenty-four pack as he rehearses his initial rejection of the coaching position and still managed to sound relatively coherent and steady on his feet.
I get that The Way Back wants to say that Jack is finding both redemption and purpose in his coaching, but for someone who was that deep into booze, his almost cold-turkey abstinence seems a bit hard to believe.
I did not see Ben Affleck give a performance as his performance seemed to consist of looking sad or yelling a curse storm in front of the kids. Again, I've never believed Ben Affleck is an actor though an excellent director. He was flat throughout, and when he tries to be deeper or dramatic such as with his estranged wife he never convinced me Jack was a troubled soul.
The interesting thing in The Way Back with regards to the basketball games is that we mostly get the final scores and very few actual games. This lack of games, along with the thinnest of characterizations for our cliched team members, robs this viewer of a truly vested interest in Bishop Hayes' basketball team. It's as if we are asked to care about them without knowing much if anything about them.
The Way Back brings to mind that Ben Affleck had been originally cast as Don Haskins in Glory Road until he dropped out, Josh Lucas replacing him in the lead role. Perhaps he now wanted his own basketball film. Unfortunately, everyone seems to have gotten lost in The Way Back.
Monday, June 22, 2020
Saturday, June 20, 2020
AND THEN WE DANCED
And Then We Danced was surrounded by controversy and scandal in Georgia (the country, not the state) where it is set due to its subject matter. The mere suggestion that traditional Georgian dance could have any homosexuality either in its rhythms or performers is too obscene to even consider, at least openly. While And Then We Danced may not break new ground in gay representation, it does have strong performances and insight into another culture that makes it worth a look.
Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is still working to be part of his family's tradition of traditional Georgian dance. He faces several obstacles: the hostility of his tyrannical instructor Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) who has a disdain for Merab's family, Merab's more talented but less driven brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli) and now Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). Irakli is a newer, more rebellious but talented dancer whom Merab takes an instant dislike to.
However, they soon become fast friends after Irakli helps Merab with his technique and shows himself a nice guy, albeit one who like David also drinks to excess. There's a sudden opening for the main troupe after another dancer is sent off when his same-sex attraction is discovered, and both Irakli and Merab find themselves on the audition shortlist.
Things between them culminate though when they go out of Tbilisi to celebrate the birthday of Merab's longtime dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili). One night, they stimulate each other, the next it is a full-on sexual encounter. Irakli suddenly departs, leaving Merab confused and conflicted, plunging into dark areas. What will become of Merab, his dancing dreams, and perhaps his own life?
And Then We Danced brought to mind other gay-themed films such as Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name in that there seems to be a common thread among so many of them. It is that of "young or youngish man, perhaps unaware of or unwilling to admit his true sexuality, is sexually awakened by a more assertive/open man that comes into his life". I can't say whether this is how things usually go when a gay man discovers his same-sex desires, but there it is.
Like Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name, Merab gives no indication that he has any homosexual desires or interests until Ikarli comes, and even that comes about slowly. He doesn't show any desires (romantic or sexual) towards Mary or any woman, but neither towards any man. Merab may even be closer to asexual, and Irakli's appearance at first seems more hindrance than lustful.
It's to writer/director Levan Akin that he drew strong performances from his cast, in particular from Gelbakhiani making his acting debut as Merab. There are subtle moments that slowly indicate that Merab may be finding in Irakli someone more than a friend: a smile when Irakli puts his head on Merab's shoulder, him smelling Irakli's shirt (again, a nod to Brokeback Mountain?). Gelbakhiani has an almost innocent face, one that fills with conflict, even guilt, until in his climatic dance scene, where his dancing may not be "masculine" but it is authentic to himself.
As Irakli, Valishvili has that devil-may-care manner that sets him out as more rebellious to tradition (for heavens sake, he wears an earring!). They work well together, showcasing the differences between the dancing goals of Merab (who wants technique) and Irakli (who wants joy).
This is not to say though that as I watched And Then We Danced, some things did puzzle me. I find that there is a sharp difference between love and sexual desire, and try as everyone did I did not sense that there was genuine love. Perhaps it is because I saw both men as people who were perhaps closer to "friends with benefits" than genuinely in love.
It is also due to how Merab exploring his same-sex desires after Irakli's sudden departure came across as almost dark, plunging metaphorically if not literally into a demimonde of drag queens and flamboyant men.
Other elements, such as Merab's holding and eventual returning of Irakli's earring as almost a talisman of love seemed if not a bit cliched somewhat predictable.
On the whole though, And Then We Danced dares explore a forbidden world, at least forbidden in Georgia. I think it's a bit structured in how it all plays but it works well enough.
Saturday, June 6, 2020
When released in 1995 Showgirls became one of the most infamous mainstream films to grace theaters. The first major film to be shown under the NC-17 rating (formerly the notorious X rating), Showgirls featured nudity and graphic sex scenes. It also bombed with audiences and critics, both of which savaged the film for bad acting, at times incoherent story and general sleaziness.
However, like all things, Showgirls has undergone a reevaluation. Said reevaluation and appreciation for Showgirls as both a cult film and perhaps a legitimate feature is the subject of the documentary You Don't Nomi. Does it make its case that Showgirls is not the cinematic disaster of reputation but perhaps a genuinely well-crafted film? Not to me, but You Don't Nomi does suggest that perhaps things are a bit more complex than one might think.
Using off-camera interviews with various film scholars, Showgirls fans and stars of the Showgirls musical parody, You Don't Nomi explores three possible interpretations of our notorious film. It could be a Piece of S**t. It could be a Masterpiece. It could be a Masterpiece of S**t. The documentary has its combatants make their own cases as well as explore their individual love for Showgirls. That love ranges from crafting a Midnight Movie presentation to one of You Don't Nomi's best segments.
That revolves around April Kidwell, an actress who stars as Nomi Malone in the Showgirls musical spoof. Again off-camera (all the interviews are as such), Kidwell tells her story. Starting from a Mormon upbringing, she came to New York to pursue a singing and acting career but was viciously drugged and raped. The emotional and physical scars started to heal when she was cast in spoofs of the two best-known characters in Showgirls star Elizabeth Berkley's oeuvre (Saved by the Bell's Jessie and Showgirls' Nomi) metaphorically saving her.
You Don't Nomi also allows for wildly different interpretations. One film critic waxes rhapsodic about the use of mirrors, suggesting there's some kind of artistic meaning behind it. Right after, another seems to mock such ideas, suggesting that such interpretations are downright silly.
Director Jeffrey McHale allows the film to kind of ramble and there doesn't seem to be a firm structure. One moment we can look at the problematic use of black characters in Showgirls, almost serving as "magical Negroes" whose whole purpose is to help our white protagonist. The next we go to the gay subtext and fandom for Showgirls. Another time we explore the filmography of Showgirls' director Paul Verhoeven and how certain elements in Showgirls were almost a running motif for him.
Granted, if that is the case one wonders exactly what Verhoeven finds so fascinating about vomiting, but there it is. Other, darker elements such as the brutalization of women in Verhoeven films are touched on but not deeply explored.
There are some fascinating elements in You Don't Nomi. One interesting take is how other cult films like Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest have certain similar elements with Showgirls. All these films are about strong women fighting to get to the top. They were done with total sincerity in their stabs at being serious drama. They also were all overwrought in terms of the acting. Still, at times it is hard to figure if You Don't Nomi was attempting a Showgirls reevaluation or a Showgirls mockery.
Despite not having actual new interviews with anyone involved in Showgirls outside archival footage, you sense that those involved in this fiasco at least are embracing its sordid reputation. The film mentions how Kyle MacLachlan broached the subject of Showgirls at a tribute versus hiding from it. Unlike Faye Dunaway with Mommie Dearest, Elizabeth Berkley has somewhat embraced Showgirls' infamy, down to introducing the film at a special screening. Whether she actually enjoys being collateral damage to such a notorious flop, one that caused her career great damage, we do not know.
Then again, can one every really Nomi?
Friday, June 5, 2020
Before reviewing the documentary You Don't Nomi, I opted to first watch the film which inspired the documentary's exploration of it. Showgirls, in all its figurative and literal naked glory, is tacky, tawdry, sleazy and at times flat-out bonkers. My late friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. and I had hoped to see it together after having seen it separately but alas that was not to be. As a dramatic feature, Showgirls is hilarious. As an erotic film, Showgirls is devoid of eroticism. Despite its awfulness, I can see why so many enjoy its almost gleeful brazenness.
A drifter calling herself Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) has arrived in Las Vegas with dreams of being a dancer despite knowing nobody and having no resources. She quickly finds both a best friend in Molly (Gena Ravera) and a job as a stripper at Cheetahs. Molly works as a costumer at the posh Stardust Hotel, where Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) rules the Vegas Strip with her erotic stage show Goddess.
Nomi soon yearns to be in Goddess, but exactly in what capacity is unclear. Will it be as a mere chorus girl? Does our temptress have designs on Cristal's boyfriend, Stardust executive Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan)? Does Cristal have designs on Nomi? As Nomi and Cristal soon start a cold war, Nomi's ruthless nature leads her to shocking acts. With Nomi now as the new Goddess, she must make a final, fateful decision after Molly is brutally assaulted by Molly's idol.
So much of Showgirls is so wildly misguided that any sane person would look at it with at minimum bemusement, at most with almost uncontrollable howls of laughter at how serious they were trying to be and failing spectacularly at it. I confess that within six minutes into the film, I started laughing at Showgirls, which is a strange thing given that it was meant as a serious drama.
At least I figure the cast of Showgirls did not deliberately play things for laughs, but director Paul Verhoeven opted to tell his cast to be BIG, almost cartoonishly so. Of particular note is Berkley, whose performance had an almost unhinged and desperate quality to it. Everything Berkley as Nomi did was so BIG, so exaggerated and almost insane that you wonder if either Berkley or Nomi were in fact literally crazy. Every reaction Nomi had no matter what seemed to be so massively intense that you felt she was attempting 3-D acting to literally reach out and thrust herself onto audience members. Everything from her dancing to her face in any situation both erotic and vaguely innocent had this hardness, this fierceness that became hysterical in every meaning of the word.
Berkley was so overdramatic and histrionic in Showgirls, where every aspect of her performance both dramatic and dancing had some kind of crazed intensity. It is a mesmerizing performance, but that is not a compliment.
Kyle MacLachlan seemed at least willing to play all this nuttiness as if it were a legitimate drama, but I cannot imagine that the "lurid" pool sex scene gave him any hopes that this would elevate his career. Alan Rachins has extraordinary range, going from the uptight lawyer on L.A. Law to the hippie dad on Dharma & Greg with equal ease. As Goddess impresario Tony Moss though, he was another unintentionally hilarious figure. "I'm erect. Why aren't you erect?" he taunts Nomi when he examines her breasts. I figure the line was meant to be serious, but as written by Joe Eszterhas and delivered by Rachins, its end result is more laughter. Why the dancers would blanch in shock at Moss barking out "SHOW ME YOUR TITS!" when Goddess is a topless revue one can only guess at.
Eszterhas was reportedly paid over $3 million for writing Showgirls, and one wonders what the actors must have thought when they were asked to deliver such lines as "You f**k 'em without f**king them!" and having conversations about eating Doggie Chow. There are so many odd turns and strange subplots that drift in and out with no sense of logic. We get bits about James (Glenn Plummer), a choreographer with an erotic and dance fixation on Nomi that is totally irrelevant to Nomi's actual story. We also get another subplot involving rival Goddess dancers that might have been more interesting than Nomi's actual story.
Add to that the wildly contradictory nature of Showgirls. One of the Goddess dancers is meant to be shown sympathetically by showing she's a mother with two small children, but she later deliberately injures her rival, making the stab at sympathy irrational. However, the worst element is with Ravera's Molly, the only actually decent character and only genuinely good performance in the whole film. One can quibble with how quickly she came around to any of Nomi's idiotic to criminal acts, but Molly's brutal assault bordered on sadistic. It was an ugly thing to see, and seemed to be there because Showgirls simply ran out of whatever passed as plot and they needed a last-minute suggestion that our wicked Nomi had some semblance of morality.
On just about every level, Showgirls is horrible. Goddess is what a Las Vegas revue would look like if the Las Vegas Motel 6 ever had a floor show. It is beyond laughable that Cristal Connors would be any kind of draw, that Goddess would be such a major Vegas Strip show (or perhaps "strip" show) and especially that Paula Abdul or a pre-Super Bowl Janet Jackson would even consider being the star of Goddess. The stage show Goddess pretty much reflects Showgirls as a film: it shows a lot of skin but is incoherent, unerotic and laughably bad whenever it tries to be elegant or sophisticated.
Wildly misguided and misdirected (again in every sense of the word), Showgirls is not the drama it imagines itself to be. Despite the bad acting, oddball story, wild leaps of logic and general sleaziness, I cannot condemn the film completely. There is something almost mystifying about Showgirls, like a ranting lunatic racing nude across the freeway. You are horrified, appalled, even frightened but you can't completely look away.
Wednesday, June 3, 2020
CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY
Warner Brothers, for all its reputation as a studio that specialized in gritty urban crime stories, was fearless when it came to confronting the impending evil of Nazism. Confessions of a Nazi Spy is nowhere near subtle, but it is an interesting time capsule of a time and place where the growing menace was still, theoretically, far off.
Respected physician Dr. Kassell (Paul Lukas) is overt about his love for the Third Reich. As both a naturalized American citizen and head of a local German-American Bund, he routinely spouts propaganda supporting the Nazi regime and wishes it could work in the United States too.
Dr. Kassell also spreads Nazi propaganda at their behest, and said propaganda starts luring in disgruntled loser Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer). He turns to espionage to get some money from the Reich, and as "Sword" gets his Army buddy Werner Renz (Joe Sawyer) to betray his country.
All this nefarious activity eventually attracts the attention of the FBI. One of its top agents, Edward Renard (Edward G. Robinson) is convinced that "Sword" is part of a Bund Society. Eventually Renard tracks down Schneider, who gives up his German contacts through flattery versus force. Some of the Nazi agents are caught and tried, while others, like Kassell, are repatriated by the Gestapo most unwillingly. This bungled Fifth Columnists all fall into the hands of American justice.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy is less than its daring title promises. I think it is because it is so overt in its storytelling that today it veers a bit close to kitsch. Of particular note is the ending where Renard and a fellow agent discuss the trial. To the growing swells of America the Beautiful, both wonder out loud about the greatness of our system.
Again, subtle it is not.
One thing that I kept wondering was whether having so many accented actors made Confessions of a Nazi Spy a bit too outlandish to believe, even if the story was based off news articles detailing such activities. You had Lukas and Lederer with strong accents as these nefarious accomplices, but then you had the very light and pleasant manner (and more American-sounding) Werner Renz. It did make me wonder whether director Anatole Litvak might have been better served to have Americans as the spies.
I think it is because it would be too easy to accept "foreigners" or at least foreign-sounding people be part of a conspiracy. It might also perhaps have helped if perhaps Lukas' Dr. Kassell had been more a dupe than an overt agent. It is a bit too easy to believe the foreign Schneider was already sympathetic, but perhaps if the one seduced to the Fatherland's worldview was a more "all-American" type, it would have made it more plausible to go undetected.
One thing that wasn't thought of then that might be thought now is how Confessions of a Nazi Spy could feed suggestions of disloyalty from naturalized citizens. It might be that having non-native born Americans implies that all non-native born Americans are suspect, a mindset that sadly led many Japanese-Americans to internment camps. To be fair, the film is not responsible for such acts and focuses on German versus Japanese agents. However, is it that far of a stretch to see how "foreignness" of the Germans in the film might make the "foreignness" of the Japanese suspect?
As a side note, Confessions of a Nazi Spy went off into curious territory. There was a whole subplot about Kassell's private life with a wife and mistress that seemed to be from a whole other film. What Kassell's bed-hopping has to do with anything one can only guess at.
If there is a saving grace in Confessions of a Nazi Spy, it is the surprisingly small but effective role of Edward G. Robinson as the shrewd FBI agent. It's nice to see Eddie on the right side of the law for a change, and in his quiet but firm manner he makes Agent Renard a formidable figure. He rarely if ever rages, and certainly not in his confrontations with Schneider. Here, the scenes between Robinson and Lederer are excellent: how the ego of one is manipulated by the other into delivering said confessions.
This cannot be said for most other performances, which seemed to border on camp. Lukas seemed to be almost cartoonish as Kassell and at times Lederer too seemed to be overdoing the "I'm EVIL" bit. A scene involving Ward Bond as an American Legion member disgusted by the Bund meeting is surprising but effective. Also to the film's credit, it does show that some Germans were appalled at the Nazis behavior and condemned it.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy feels a bit of a slog given its running time, and it probably would qualify as propaganda now. Still, strong performances elevate it and offer a view of a time when Nazis were seen as a nuisance versus the menace they really were.
Monday, June 1, 2020
END OF SENTENCE
For longtime readers, I think you are aware I am coming out from a very dark place. I am in double grief: I lost both my job and my mother back-to-back. It's been a devastating time, and as such I simply was too overwhelmed to watch anything, let alone review any film.
One thing Mom imparted with me, however, is that "life is for the living". Yes, we should grieve but to stay in perpetual grief, to turn her home into a museum or mausoleum would appall her. As such, I am slowly reemerging. There is no set time to stop grieving, no "end of date" where you cease suffering. It lessens but it never truly ends.
That brings me to End of Sentence, perhaps the oddest choice for which to finally emerge from my embargo due to mourning given the film centers around the death of a mother. However, with strong performances and a simple yet heartfelt story, End of Sentence will move one deeply as the strangers known as family navigate troubled waters.
After his wife's death, widower Frank Fogle (John Hawkes) will honor her final wish to have her ashes scattered on a lake in her native Ireland. She also wanted Frank to scatter the ashes with their son, Sean (Logan Lerman). This is easier said than done given Sean was just released from an Alabama prison for auto theft and Sean harbors many resentments against his very quiet, passive father whom he always calls "Frank".
Circumstances being what they are, Sean agrees to go if they can wrap all this up within five days, allowing Sean the chance to go to Oakland for a new job and life far from Frank. Sean never bothers to hide his disdain and seems to go out of his way to disrespect and belittle Frank, who constantly swallows up the abuse.
As they attempt to endure each other, Sean picks up the beautiful and mysterious Jewel (Sarah Bolger), whom he insists travel with them. Reluctantly, Frank goes along with this, and on their way to honor the deceased's wishes secrets are revealed, side trips are unexpectedly taken and father and son learn to understand each other. In the end, both Frank and Sean are released from their own pain and see things from a wider perspective.
End of Sentence, written and directed by Elfar Adalsteins, does not reinvent the wheel. In certain ways, it is a very simple and almost predictable story: surly son and emotionally restrained father reconcile with a pretty young thing thrown in for good measure. However, the simplicity and straightforward nature of End of Sentence allows us to focus on the Fogles' metaphorical and literal journey.
This is a movie that slowly works to win the viewer over, and a major credit goes to the three principal actors. John Hawkes truly is a national treasure, and End of Sentence is another in a catalog of exceptional performances. Hawkes' Frank is not an unemotional man, but rather a man who fears emotion. Over the course of the film we see how his emotional restraint served as a coping mechanism to his life, lending his characterization a deeper, more poignant element.
It is easy to like Frank, to sympathize with him. It is a credit to Hawkes as an actor that he displays Frank's emotional struggles, his doubts and fears, with his body and face more than his line delivery. Seeing Frank slowly change is a beautiful thing, and John Hawkes makes Frank a fully-realized person versus a character to play.
The mind does boggle at the idea of Logan Lerman as a hardened criminal, even with tattoos. At times it seems Lerman is trying too hard to be the unpleasant, angry Sean to where you think he is "acting" versus "being". However, he does have an excellent and moving moment in his final scene with Bolger, which perhaps indicates that Lerman may have untapped skills. End of Sentence has not won me over to being a Logan Lerman fan, as I have disliked most of his films (and him in them). However, at least after End of Sentence I'm not going to automatically write him off.
Sarah Bolger is excellent as Jewel, giving her a complexity that makes her both sympathetic and treacherous. She reminds me of another Irish actress, Saoirse Ronan, not just in looks but in exceptional acting talent. Bolger takes what could be a cliched role (the beautiful but potentially duplicitous woman) and makes her into a flawed figure, one who can care about and take advantage of the same people. She is a survivor, a complicated and contradictory character whom you wouldn't mind seeing a whole film about.
I've no objection to End of Sentence II: Jewel's Journey.
It is not hard to fall in love with End of Sentence, despite what could be at times a predictable story. A beautiful soundtrack, the lush Irish countryside and two exceptional performances plus a surprisingly strong turn from Logan Lerman all make this a very worthy watch. End of Sentence will move the viewer and show that sometimes the wounds we carry can be healed through those simple acts of love, understanding and forgiveness.