Additional Bite-Sized Reviews, Feb. ’21, Pt. I: ‘Fantasy Island,’ ‘The Way Back,’ and More

The Way Back Still Image
Ben Affleck in ‘The Way Back.’ — Photo: Richard Foreman / Warner Bros.

In this edition of my monthly movie and television catch-up article series titled ‘Additional Bite-Sized Reviews,’ I take a look at a couple of films that I didn’t get the chance to watch in 2020 — specifically Fantasy Island and The Way Back. But I also give you my thoughts on two 2021 documentaries — the latest Netflix true-crime docu-series and a Marvel Comics documentary film on Disney+.


  • What are Additional Bite-Sized Reviews?
    – My monthly movie and television catch-up review series ‘Additional Bite-Sized Reviews‘ is an evolution of the Overview-article section previously titled ‘What I Didn’t Write About.’ I was originally inspired by film critic Peter Sobczynski’s article series ‘Films I Neglected to Review,’ wherein he writes short, or brief, reviews of films that he hasn’t had the time to write full reviews about. Therefore, in articles such as this one, I will provide my readers with my thoughts on select films, shows, and even classics that I feel like giving my thoughts on, even though I don’t have the time to dedicate thorough reviews to them.
  • Why do the bite-sized reviews not include either a letter grade or a review score?
    – In my full and thorough reviews, I like to score or grade what I watch. But since these reviews aren’t as detailed, I think it is fairer to the films and shows to simply just decide whether or not to recommend them. I guess you could say this is the only type of review that is basically ‘scored’ with the classic thumbs-up/thumbs-down-method on my site.

The Way Back | Film | Dir. Gavin O’Connor | Screenplay by Brad Ingelsby | Release Year: 2020 | Seen on: HBO Nordic | Recommended?: Yes.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A high school basketball star is recruited to coach his old team, but before he can truly have an impact on the young men he’s trying to steer in the right direction, the former star has to grapple with his own problems. Sports dramas are a dime a dozen, and, for that reason alone, it is true that this movie is perhaps a tad too formulaic to be truly memorable. But, look, I am a sucker for good basketball movies, and I really like the basketball scenes in this movie.

What buoys up this film is the central performance delivered by Ben Affleck, who plays a character haunted by the loss of a child. Affleck’s character suffers from substance abuse and wild mood swings, and it is honestly remarkable how convincing Affleck is in the role. There is a scene early on in the film, where the main character speaks to his sister in her kitchen, and, in that scene, Affleck completely pulls off that sad and hopeless look that is befitting of his character. Whenever Affleck is in a pivotal scene, the look on his face seems heartbreakingly genuine.

I also really liked that the film doesn’t technically end with a big celebratory win on the basketball court. What might’ve been the film’s big Hollywood ending happens only 70 minutes into the film, and then the reality of the film sets in. Hollywood endings don’t often include the morning after, but this film does. It reminds us of the possibility of a relapse and of the salty taste of rock bottom.

A lot of the talk surrounding this film has been about Ben Affleck’s life behind-the-scenes. Affleck has been a tabloid favorite for more than a decade, and the limelight has not always been kind to him. There may be some who would argue that the true story surrounding Ben Affleck is more interesting than the film, but that doesn’t really matter here. What does matter is that Ben Affleck is extraordinary in this familiar but surprisingly good sports drama.

Fantasy Island | Film | Dir. Jeff Wadlow | Screenplay by Jeff Wadlow, Chris Roach, and Jillian Jacobs | Release Year: 2020 | Seen on: Viaplay | Recommended?: No.

I can’t say that I am very familiar with the series that the film was based on, but I feel like I’ve seen scenes from it. Perhaps this is another case of cultural osmosis. Whatever the case may be, I was a little bit excited about watching this movie about people getting their wishes granted on a beautiful island in the middle of nowhere. But it was never entirely clear to me if the film was trying to be a comedy or a horror movie, and it ended up feeling like something in between that wasn’t funny enough to be a straight-up horror-comedy or scary enough to be a horror movie.

Tonal issues aside, I enjoyed some of the character interactions for what they were. I think that the soldier-fantasy had a lot of potential and, for what it’s worth, I actually kind of enjoyed the brothers’ relationship (J.D. and Brax, played by Ryan Hansen and Jimmy O. Yang, respectively). But once the film actually got going its plot became increasingly more convoluted, and, eventually, it felt like the movie wasn’t following its own very elaborate set of rules, which is a little bit of a dealbreaker for a movie like this one.

If you don’t want to know anything about the end of the film, then look away. But I did want to say that there is also a crucial twist towards the end of the film that felt like a massive cheat, to me, since it altered one character’s motivations to such an extent that a pivotal scene earlier in the film (and the entire film itself) didn’t really make a lot of sense anymore.

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel | Documentary Mini-Series | Dir. Joe Berlinger | Release Year: 2021 | Season Length: 4 Episodes | Seen on: Netflix | Recommended?: Unsure.

Netflix has found a lot of success with the true-crime documentary genre. Several of their documentary series have captured the interest of a worldwide audience, and some of them, like Making a Murderer and Tiger King, became some of the most talked-about Netflix series ever. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel has all the makings of a strong Netflix true-crime docu-series. For one, the docu-series was made by true-crime filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who is especially known for his Paradise Lost-documentaries, his Ted Bundy documentary, and his Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

This documentary is, in general, about the history of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, but, more specifically, the documentary investigates the vanishing and death of Elisa Lam. Elisa Lam’s disappearance became a story heard all around the world because of a mysterious surveillance video that the LAPD released, which made the story an internet sensation. Appropriately, the documentary also manages to tap into a relevant modern topic, which is the influence of web-sleuths on open and unsolved cases.

This is one of those stories that I remember quite clearly. I remember watching a BuzzFeed Unsolved video about it once. So, I’ve probably actually watched the surveillance video several times before I watched the documentary. In general, I think that Berlinger does a good job of summing up the most likely scenario in the documentary’s final moments, which is a good thing. But the documentary series is, frankly, overlong. Although the docu-series ends up being comprised of four long episodes, it probably doesn’t have enough material for more than two episodes. One of the reasons why is that it doesn’t really include interviews with people who actually knew Elisa Lam. You do get to read and hear her posts from Tumblr, but not much more than that.

The documentary, honestly, seems too obsessed with the web-sleuth angle of it all. I do think this is an interesting documentary topic, and I do think the docu-series’ conclusion feels appropriate. But, like I said, even though the involvement of internet detectives probably needed to be discussed in the documentary, I think Berlinger ended up overwhelming his documentary with unnecessary conspiracy theories. I know that the executives at Netflix probably like their true-crime docu-series, but this should’ve just been a feature-length documentary.

Marvel’s Behind the Mask | Documentary Film | Dir. Michael Jacobs | Release Year: 2021 | Seen on: Disney+ | Recommended?: Yes.

Marvel’s Behind the Mask is a sometimes uplifting look at the influence of comic books on culture, as well as an exploration of how comic books have tried to grow with the times. It feels like a great companion piece to the Marvel docu-series titled 616, which was released in 2020.

As a documentary, it focuses on the importance of identity and inclusion in comic books, as well as how comic books have reflected the times they were written in. And, in general, it focuses on the human side of things in comics and culture. However, it is also true that, with a measly runtime of 64 minutes, it feels more like a general and superficial overview than a thorough look at the influence of Marvel Comics.

In fact, it feels very much like a crash course on the history of Marvel Comics, the creators of the iconic characters, and how the focus has always been more on the human alter ego than the super-powered individual, which I do think is true about Marvel Comics.

The documentary does a nice job of highlighting some of the ways in which Marvel Comics have tried to move with the times and focus on inclusion and diversity. Of course, documentaries such as this one can end up feeling more like an advertisement that pats the company on the back, and, yes, they do talk positively about the influence of Marvel Comics. However, I did appreciate the moments in which some writers appeared to own up to their past mistakes, and I liked that the documentary talked about some of the offensive mistakes that Marvel, like other comic book publishing labels, has made over the years.

All in all, even though I really liked the documentary, it does admittedly feel both superficial and truncated. It feels like there is more to be said about pretty much every topic that they cover. However, at just an hour, this is a nice and short overview that I think most people will enjoy, as it reminds you of just how important it is to focus on the creation of rich characters that we can see ourselves in. As the Marvel-saying goes, anyone can wear the mask, and the documentary does a good job of emphasizing that. And it ends with a perfect quote from Stan Lee.

– Reviews Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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