Movie Review ~ Concussion

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.

Stars: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, David Morse, Albert Brooks

Director: Peter Landesman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: In recent years, I haven’t been the biggest Will Smith fan.  Not that he’s given us any reason to be.  A series of high-profile pseudo vanity projects have trampled the one-time surefire blockbuster maker into questionable territory, with audiences not totally trusting the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Honestly, I’ve never totally warmed to Smith’s onscreen presence, too often feeling like the actor was showboating more than acting.  Even his Oscar nominated turns in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness felt like Smith barely tapping into the maximum of his potential.

So I approached his latest drama with some caution because the melodramatic trailers had the whiff of a desperate attempt redemption.  Well, there’s redemption to be had in Concussion but it’s not the least bit desperate or undeserved.  As a brilliant pathologist that finds a link between football players and traumatic brain injuries, Smith (Winter’s Tale) turns in his best performance to date.  He dives deep into the character, eschewing his penchant for winking compliance in the face of adversity for a more realistic take on a man that knows a dangerous truth and can’t understand why others don’t know it too.

I’d imagine that the timing of Concussion was not only considered for Smith’s chance at an Oscar nomination but for the final weeks of the NFL Pro Football season.  In recent years there’s been much discussion, more at the high-school and college level, about the long-term effects of football related head injuries and what steps are being taken to prevent these tough damages within a sport known for its necessary roughness.

Director Peter Landesman (Kill the Messenger) created Concussion out of a GQ article that followed the studies of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant working in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office.  Dr. Omalu came to America like so many, looking for the American dream with his own set of ideals and values.  When he delves deeper into the death of an ex-pro footballer, he identifies a slow-developing injury in the brain previously undetected.  His colleagues (especially a bitter co-worker) think he’s marching down the wrong path but Dr. Omalu’s drive and conviction eventually attract national attention.

Going up against an organization as big as the NFL is no small feat but with the help of a former NFL physician (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, more awake and alive than ever) and his superior (Albert Brooks, A Most Violent Year, excellently wry) he shines a light on a problem many are choosing to actively ignore.   First dismissed then vilified, Dr. Omalu’s persistence in his findings aims to bring about a change…but at what personal cost?

The film is on point in its message and overall is an entertaining two hours that goes by quickly.  It’s only after that you realize the loose ends present, the characters introduced but not fleshed out or truly finalized.  Years go by over the course of several scenes and it can be difficult to keep track of where we are in the grand scheme of things.  The movie relies on Dr. Omalu’s growing relationship with a romantic interest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jupiter Ascending) and the building of his dream house to help us chart the timeline.

While this is Dr. Omalu’s story, Concussion doesn’t seem like it has a serious agenda at play.  That could be purposeful, a way to not anger the football fans that are likely the target audience.  But this isn’t just another sports picture, there are no nail-biting touchdown plays or Hail-Marys in the final seconds. It’s a true life account of one man seeing a problem and trying to fix it, no matter how unpopular his opinion may be.  And it’s worth seeing.

The Silver Bullet ~ Finding Dory

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Synopsis: The friendly-but-forgetful blue tang fish reunites with her loved ones, and everyone learns a few things about the true meaning of family along the way.

Release Date: June 17. 2016

Thoughts: It’s hard to believe that Disney/PIXAR’s Finding Nemo is 12 years old.  And it’s equally hard to believe that for as successful as that film was, its sequel took so very long to get swimming. Perhaps the wait will be well worth it when Finding Dory is released next summer.  This first look showcases the same rich colors and vibrant animation that made the original such a sight to see…even more so when it was re-released in 3D a few years back.  Plot details are scarce but you can bet that considering the studio and players,  it will be an emotionally resonant underwater adventure.  With the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Diane Keaton (And So It Goes), Ed O’Neill (Entourage), Albert Brooks (A Most Violent Year), Idris Elba (Prometheus), Ty Burrell (The Skeleton Twins), & Dominic West (John Carter).

Movie Review ~ A Most Violent Year

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Fans of the 70s and 80s potboiler crime dramas from the likes of Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View), Sidney Lumet (Serpico), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) will want to make time for writer/director J.C. Chandor’s well-constructed look at NYC before it became the Disney-fied commercialized metropolis that it’s morphed into over the last 30 years.

Chandor (Oscar nominated for 2012’s talky Margain Call before going almost dialogue free for 2013’s All is Lost) sets his gritty period piece right on the precipice of the Big Apple exploding into a year of murder and crime the likes the city had never seen. Though strolling through Times Square and the upscale posh surrounding boroughs may seem carefree now, don’t forget there was a time when NYC was not the place to be and violence ran rampant in select (and populous) parts of town.

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Won’t Back Down) is in the heating-oil field running a business he took over from his father-in-law. Industrious and looking forward, Isaac’s Abel Morales is pursuing the American Dream and trying to owe as few people as possible in his quest to achieve it. We get the impression that he’s a different businessman than his father-in-law was, as Abel resists the urge to go with the flow but rather to control his own destiny. That doesn’t always sit well with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar, Lawless) who’d rather her husband assert dominance first and ask questions later.

After a series of violent hijackings of Abel’s fuel transportation trucks as well as escalating threats by his competitors with ties to shady dealings of the criminal underground variety, Abel must choose a path that will help him toward the future he envisions for himself and his family – but at what cost? There’s a lot of moral dilemma going on in A Most Violent Year, not the least of it involving the ultimate price of ambition. We know Abel is one of the good guys so we’re brought to the edge of our seats with interest when everyone around him seems to be nudging him toward ever darker solutions to his problems and wondering when/if he’ll break.

Isaac carries the weight of the film on his broad shoulders with a quiet ease, suggesting the internal struggle more than making a show of it on the outside. The stakes are high and though we never see him break a sweat, inside you know his heart rate is sky-high. With her platinum Dorothy Stratten/Galaxina hairdo and a manicure that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bond femme fatale, Chastain’s the Lady Macbeth of the film. Wise enough to know that the character could come off one-dimensional; Chastain gives Anna a valued aura of mystery so we’re never quite sure what her endgame is.

It all builds to a satisfying and necessary ending, one that rides the razor’s edge of being both too pat and ever so slightly ambiguous. New York wasn’t yet close to getting its make-over so we know what lies ahead for our characters, even if they think they’ve got it all figured out. This is a velvety piece of old-school filmmaking, very worth your time.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Most Violent Year

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Synopsis: A crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981 centered on a the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.

Release Date:  December 31, 2014

Thoughts: Writer/director J.C. Chandor has had a most prosperous last few years after receiving an Oscar nomination for his debut feature Margin Call in 2011. He followed that up last year by giving Robert Redford one of the best roles of his career in All Is Lost which I loved but divided many a moviegoer. Chandor is back in 2014 with this highly anticipated crime drama starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them) that looks like an intriguing mix of styles that have echoes of of Scorcese, De Palma, & Cassavetes. Could be a sleeper hit thanks to its distinguished pedigree.

Movie Review ~ This Is 40

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the lives of Pete and Debbie a few years after the events of Knocked Up.

Stars: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox, John Lithgow, Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Melissa McCarthy, Robert Smigel, Charlene Yi, Albert Brooks, Chris O’Dowd

Director: Judd Apatow

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: A miserable cinematic mallet to the head, This Is 40 is the latest film from director/writer Apatow and is being billed as a “sort-of sequel” to his 2007 blockbuster Knocked Up.  Instead of continuing on the story of the mismatched couple that found themselves pregnant, Apatow has crafted a very long follow-up that focuses on the characters from the “B” storyline from the first film.  In Knocked Up, married couple Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) were interesting variations on the best friend characters…people that had problems of their own that didn’t always come to the rescue like they would in most films.

In This Is 40, Debbie and Pete are both approaching the big 4-0 within days of each other (at least I think they are close together, the timeline for the film seemed to be rewritten every half hour) and…stop me if you’ve heard this before…the female is taking getting older worse than the male!!!  I know, right?  Unheard of!  That’s just one of the many clichéd situations, jokes, dialogue, etc. that This Is 40 employs in its epically long 2 ¼ hours.

It’s clear that Rudd (Wanderlust, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Mann (ParaNorman) have good chemistry and, like Knocked Up, I totally bought them as a married couple.  I’m just convinced that these particular characters didn’t need another whole film to themselves to complete their arc.  What’s more, this film is LONGER than Knocked Up and doesn’t have the strong supporting players that film did to keep things moving.  Instead, the movie is laboriously carried by Rudd, Mann, and the actresses playing their daughters.  Did I mention that Mann is married to Apatow and their real-life children play the offspring of Mann/Rudd (clearly standing in for Apatow) in the film?  Basically you are paying money to see the Apatow family home movies.

Like Apatow’s previous directorial efforts (Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Funny People) the movie is nearly 90 minutes too long.  There is so much extraneous material here that Apatow has seemed to jump the Director’s Cut gun and just given us his preferred cut of the film now instead of later.  What’s more, Universal Studios let him do it!  There are characters and scenes that could be wholly excised and not harm anything integral to the story yet there they are consistently ruining any sort of momentum the film gets going.  I’d go out on a limb and say that every scene went on at least a minute too long.

When you have to say that Megan Fox is the best of the supporting players, you know you may be in trouble.  The truth is, Fox is quite good as an employee at Mann’s barely mentioned California boutique and she saves whatever scenes she’s a part of…even though many of the jokes come at her expense.  Brooks and Lithgow play Rudd and Mann’s loser fathers – both actors could play these characters in their sleep…and it looks like they are asleep most of the time.  (Interesting to note that the credits list more make-up artists for Brooks than Mann…yet he still looks like a sand dune with eyes)  Yi and O’Dowd are awful in their roles…McCarthy starts off fairly well in her glorified cameo until she and Apatow take the comedy to an out-of-control hyper-vulgar state that lost my attention almost immediately.

Vulgarity is really the lifeblood of this film and Apatow may have thought he was being real witty letting his actors use all the swear words in the book and their derivatives but it only shows how average his writing style is by not finding a better voice to give to his actors.  I’m absolutely no prude when it comes to potty mouth-edness but the amount of expletives that come from every person in the film (even the children) is exhausting and undercut any point they are trying to make while using them.

Mann and Rudd spend 98% of the movie bickering and when they aren’t bickering they’re drunk, or high, or having sex, or laughing at their own jokes.  By the time Mann blows up at Rudd for the 900th time, the audience is numb to the conversation and we just await their eventual reconciliation.  Even if Apatow gets in a few on-the-nose observations about married life, they wind up being overshadowed by a general feeling of misery that is absolutely toxic.

So, in summary, here’s what I learned from seeing This Is 40: Marriage is hard, raising kids isn’t easy, parents are crazy, getting old sucks, and young people have different musical tastes than older people. Cutting edge material, Mr. Apatow….cutting edge.  It’s hard to believe that the same guy that gave us the excellent and witty television show Freaks and Geeks has sunk to this sub-par level.  It’s one of the least entertaining and least funny films released in 2012.