It’s incredible how many films are hitting theaters today. It’s one of the more crowded new release slates in a bit, so a review round-up is necessary on this Friday. Here we’ll be discussing three of the movies we weren’t able to review so far this week, giving them at least a small moment in the sun. Today we have a trio of titles, ranging from a true life drama in Brian Banks, over to a survival tale in Light of My Life, all the way to a quirky romantic comedy in Ode to Joy. Are any of these worth your time? All of them? Well, we have the answer for you imminently. Read on below to find out…
There’s no denying that the true story behind Brian Banks’ life is ready made for a cinematic retelling. It was only a matter of deciding what the right angle was to tackle it, no pun intended. Here, with the self titled Brian Banks, the route taken is a manipulative yet effective one. Cliches and well worn narrative moments derail this one from being as good as it could have been, but a pure heart and a tremendously effective lead performance help save the day and allow it to be a successful flick. It’s not a Super Bowl champ, but this sports drama has more than enough to warrant a light recommendation.
This is the true life story of Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge), a high school football star who was on a fast track to the NFL before his life was upended by a false accusation. An All-American in high school, the linebacker was committed to play for USC, a football powerhouse, before a rape accusation comes his way. Without proper legal counsel, Banks is railroaded through a broken justice system, pleads no contest, and is sentenced to a decade of prison, followed by probation. Once out of jail, he finds his opportunities limited. Hoping to clear his name, reclaim his life, and continue to pursue his dream of playing professional football, he seeks to have his conviction overturned. As the years progress, that seems less and less likely. Then, with the support of Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) and the California Innocence Project, however hesitant they initially were to take up his long shot case, Banks gets his true day in court. It doesn’t take a genius to know where this is going, but it’s effective in wringing emotions out of your nonetheless. Tom Shadyac directs a script by Doug Atchison, with cinematography by Ricardo Diaz, as well as a score from John Debney. In addition to Hodge and Kinnear, the cast includes Tiffany Dupont, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Liburd, Xosha Roquemore, and Sherri Shepherd.
Even if every moment of the film is telegraphed, there’s a reason why the path traversed here is a popular cinematic one. It works. In large part, the success is due to Aldis Hodge, who passionately gives life to Banks. Greg Kinnear is reliably solid playing the role of an attorney who slowly comes around to going all in on Brian, but it’s Hodge who shines. It’s the sort of breakthrough performance that should get him on a lot of radars. Doug Atchison’s screenplay is a weak link, though Tom Shadyac paces things well enough that it’s not a critical issue. Moreover, this is an interesting example of Shadyac stretching his filmmaking range. It’s not a complete success, but there’s reason to want to see more drama from the director going forward.
Brian Banks should appeal to any fan of a feel good story, especially one based in fact. It’s not exploring any new territory, whatsoever. It’s simply shining a light on Banks, who deserves to have his story told. Could it have been done in a less manipulative manner? Sure, but that’s not what we have here. Instead, we have a crowd pleaser that wears its heart on its sleeve, and that’s good enough to get a thumbs up from yours truly.
Light of My Life
Casey Affleck has an Academy Award on his mantle to show just how good an actor he is. We know about his talents. As a filmmaker, the jury has still been out, with only really the bizarre I’m Still Here to showcase. Now, his newest narrative offering is out and shows that he’s a triple threat. Light of My Life is an ambitious yet tightly focused tale of survival, proving that Affleck is not just a hell of an actor, but a tremendous filmmaker as well. The flick is impressive in its own quiet way. I want to see more of Affleck as a director, and soon too.
The movie is a two hander, centering on a father and his soon to be teenage daughter. What sets this apart is that it takes place ten years after a worldwide pandemic has wiped out half the Earth’s population, including almost all of the women. Dad (Affleck) and Rag (Anna Pniowsky) travel through the outskirts of various towns, staying away from society, mainly to keep Rag from being discovered. Dad presents her as his son, but as she gets older, people are starting to notice, creating some danger. After all, females are an endangered species and hunted by all sorts. As they try and stay alive, their bond grows and evolves, though it’s sure to be tested as they fight to find a place in the world all their own. Affleck writes and directs, with Elisabeth Moss in a small supporting role as the Mom, seen in flashbacks. The quiet yet evocative score is by Daniel Hart, while Adam Arkapaw contributes some impactful cinematography.
Affleck has a real strong filmmaking eye. Confident in his writing and direction, he allows shots to linger, making for a poetic feel to things. It’s impressively done, to be sure. His performance is excellent, though pales in comparison to young Anna Pniowsky, who’s a revelation in this breakthrough turn. Affleck and Pniowsky are terrific as father and daughter, up against the world. Even when the stakes are high, there’s still quiet moments to be found, which lends a human feel to an apocalyptic tale.
Light of My Life would seem even more rewarding if we hadn’t been treated last year to Leave No Trace. The film still is wonderfully rewarding, just can’t help but remind you of that other story of father and daughter. Still, Affleck has worked in some mild science fiction as well, helping to set it apart. Destined to be one of the more underrated movies of the year, it deserves to be seen and appreciated. Affleck has got the goods, that’s for sure. He’s a hell of a creative talent.
Ode to Joy
Quirky romantic comedies don’t get made nearly as much as they used to. Once a staple of cinema, both Hollywood and independent, largely it’s down to the indie world to produce these. That’s a shame, as it has always been a fun genre to watch. Well, the new indie rom com Ode to Joy isn’t able to breathe new life into the genre, but it is able to present a fun little offering into its ranks. A novel concept, albeit one not fully explored, pairs with a charming cast to allow low key fun to be had. It even manages to be a little bit touching at times. What more could you want?
The film is based on a This American Life story, though largely is preoccupied with being a light-is comedy. Our hero is Charlie (Martin Freeman), who suffers from a rare disease known as cataplexy. Essentially a form of narcolepsy, Charlie has sudden bouts of paralysis that develop whenever he experiences strong emotions. For him, it’s mainly joy that does the trick. We literally meet him passing out during a family wedding. Over the years, he has developed a number of ways to combat this, essentially finding techniques to deny himself pleasure. For Charlie, too much happiness may well kill him. His brother Cooper (Jake Lacy) does his best to help, but is often bewildered by him. All of these tools Charlie has developed are put to the test when he meets Francesca (Morena Baccarin) and falls in love. Insert rom com silliness. Jason Winer directs a script from Max Werner. Supporting players include Jane Curtin and Melissa Rauch in strong roles, alongside Adam Shapiro, Shannon Woodward, and more.
What makes this movie work are the interactions between the quartet of main cast members. Morena Baccarin, Martin Freeman, Jake Lacy, and Melissa Rauch are all a ton of fun. Furthermore, Jane Curtin steals every scene she’s in with her small supporting turn. They elevate a film that sometimes isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. Still, when it’s on, it’s really quite delightful. Curtin’s scenes by far are the best, though some of the cute interactions between Baccarin and Freeman are a joy to behold, no pun intended. Plus, Freeman’s Charlie sports Mets attire, which not only is just fun to see for me, but is actually slyly genius, as what team creates more misery for lovers than the Metropolitans?
Ode to Joy presents an enjoyable rom com on a small scale, one that will almost certainly generate some smiles. Trust in Baccarin, Curtin, Freeman, Lacy, and Rauch. They allow the sometimes uneven premise to generate the kind of fun you want from the genre. Keep your expectations in check and this should provide a nice jolt of low-key entertainment…
All of these films are in theaters now!