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Movie review: ‘The Way Back,’ indeed

Motion pictures screened for reviews in this column before the coronavirus pandemic unreeled the multiplexes and other film venues in the name of social distancing couldn’t have more ironic titles.

First there was “Onward,” seen March 11 at the AMC Allentown 16, Catasauqua Road, Allentown.

It was the first movie review that ran since the review of “Call of the Wild” (seen March 4).

“The Way Back” was seen March 16 at New Vision Tilghman, South Whitehall Township, on the day that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued his order that closed nonessential businesses.

“Onward” (and outward and out and about) is where we’d like to go.

Nature’s “Call of the Wild,” namely, the coronavirus, has kept us indoors since Wolf issued the March 25 stay-at-home order for Lehigh and Northampton counties.

We wonder what “The Way Back” will be to wrest a semblance of the old normal from the new normal, as if climbing into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, a fictional time-travel machine from TV’s “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends” (1959-64), would fix everything.

After the screening of “The Way Back,” the silence was deafening in the New Vision lobby. A glance into one screening room showed massive cleaning efforts apparently already underway.

Rows and rows of the theater’s large and comfy recliner chairs were turned forward, nearly upside down, while a movie was showed on the screen above. The effect was that of plush red tombstones.

Michael “Movie Maven” Gontkosky and I lingered in the lobby, taking selfies and photos of each other in front of standup displays for upcoming movies we will probably never see at New Vision. We agreed we wanted to savor the moment, as the aroma of popcorn wafted in the air.

There was a feeling of sadness in the air, too, as if Michael and I were experiencing the real last picture show. Movies never seemed more essential.

“The Way Back,” a gritty little rough-and-tumble film released March 6, got lost in the coronavirus shuffle.

“The Way Back” opened at No. 3 and grossed $13.3 million as of its second weekend, March 13, after which the marquee lights were turned off at movie theaters across the United States. “The Way Back” was made available via Video On Demand March 19 and is available on other platforms.

If you miss sports contests, and especially basketball, what with no “March Madness” 2020, “The Way Back” may be a slam dunk for you.

In “The Way Back,” Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a recovering alcoholic, construction worker and former high school basketball standout asked to coach the varsity team at his alma mater, Bishop Hayes, a Catholic high school.

Cunningham, who practiced social distancing before the term entered the lexicon, has a prickly rapport the high school Principal Father Devine (John Aylward); a competitive situation with the assistant coach, Dan (Al Madrigal), and outright contempt for some of the high school basketball players, one of whom, Devon (Da’Vinchi), has a chip on his shoulder bigger than a basketball.

Affleck (Oscar recipient, “Argo,” picture, 2012; “Good Will Hunting,” screenplay, 1997, and whose 73 actor credits include “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” 2016, and “Pearl Harbor,” 2001) plays the role low-key, ruminative, with rarely a smile, in full beard and seemingly with a few extra pounds.

If you’re a fan of Affleck, you’ll want to see this film. If you’re not a fan of Affleck, you’ll want to see the film. He’s that good.

If Oscar remembers, and God willin’ and the creeks don’t rise, and the movie theaters reopen, look for an actor nomination for Affleck.

Director Gavin O’Connor (who directed Affleck in “The Accountant,” 2016, and also directed “Warrior,” 2011; “Pride and Glory,” 2008; “Tumbleweeds,” 1999) has a smash-mouth style of filmmaking that uses low lighting, lots of close-ups of Affleck, and innovative ways to lens the film’s basketball games, lifting them above the ordinary. The original screenplay is by Brad Ingelsby.

Credit Readers’ Anonymous:

The soundtrack includes the dour and out anthem, “Down and Out Blues,” written by Ricky Sanders Lewis and performed by the Ricky Lewis Band.

“The Way Back,”

MPAA Rated R (Restricted Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Contains some adult material. Parents are urged to learn more about the film before taking their young children with them.) for language throughout including some sexual references; Genre: Drama, Sport; Run Time: 1 hr., 48 min.; Distributed by Warner Bros.

Three popcorn boxes out of five popcorn boxes.