Movie Review ~ The Virtuoso

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Danger, deception, and murder descend upon a sleepy country town when a professional assassin accepts a new assignment from his enigmatic mentor and boss, given only a cryptic clue to identify his mysterious mark from among several possible targets.

Stars: Anson Mount, Abbie Cornish, Anthony Hopkins, Eddie Marsan, David Morse

Director: Nick Stagliano

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Wow, do you think the producers and distributors of The Virtuoso went to bed this past Oscar Sunday a little more excited for the prospects of their small thriller?  Prior to that day they had an Oscar winning star listed above the title but thanks to his unforgettable performance in The Father star Anthony Hopkins earned himself another one and under some fairly high-profile circumstances.  That will surely get people a little more interested in his next project and while The Virtuoso isn’t top tier stuff (I’m not sure it ever quite makes it to second shelf status, actually) it’s good for a little distraction in our post-Oscar palette cleanse.

It’s really not even fair to say Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) has much of a role in the film; ads show him as much more involved in the action than the 83-year-old actually is or would probably want to be.  Instead, Hopkins’ scenes are largely contained within one room and constitute one half of phone conversations between himself and The Virtuoso (Anson Mount, Non-Stop), a nameless assassin.  As The Mentor, he’s there to provide The Virtuoso with information on his next assignment and stay out of the way, which seems to be the perfect fit for the distinguished actor as well as the natty gentlemen he’s playing. 

Opening with a nifty bang, things go south for the hitman when he bungles an assignment that leaves an unfortunate instance of collateral damage.  He’s trained not to care about such blips but something about this moment shakes him, sending The Mentor in for a face-to-face meeting to check on his viability moving forward.  Cleared for his next task, The Mentor sends him to a quiet township in the middle of nowhere important with the vaguest of clues provided by their contact.  With two words, White Rivers, his only cue to go off of and a rendezvous location named, The Virtuoso arrives in town to find he isn’t the only one to show up with a mission to kill. 

There’s some good stuff to be found in the basic premise of the script from James C. Wolf, even if it annoyingly tends to favor voiceover to get us inside The Virtuoso’s head.  Narrating the film to give us outsiders his inside take on every situation and angle of defense, The Virtuoso isn’t exactly the most engaging of narrators thanks to his occupational hazard of removing emotion from his business.  In Mount’s hands, or voice rather, it does begin to drone on and sound like an adult character from Peanuts after a while.  You wish Wolf or director Nick Stagliano would have found an easier way to crack the surface and allow some sort of sentiment or personality into The Virtuoso’s hemisphere.  Where the voiceover comes in handy is when he’s sizing up who has also appeared at the same time he’s arrived, and his rundown of the suspects is one of the first ways the movie sends us down a tricky path that isn’t always what it appears to be. Even with our leading character serving as narrator, don’t trust everything you’re hearing.

The list of suspects fills out the remainder of the cast.  There’s The Waitress (Abbie Cornish, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) who catches The Virtuoso’s eye just out of town and winds up being a happy accident run-in later on.  Still…was their meeting by chance or a carefully plotted bit of intrigue?  Or what about The Loner (Eddie Marsan, Atomic Blonde) or Handsome Johnnie (Richard Brake, Spy) or even The Deputy (David Morse, Concussion) who The Waitress doesn’t remember seeing before today.  All provide their own contributions to the puzzle we’re putting together at the same time The Virtuoso is and I don’t know if I wasn’t paying attention or what but the solution to it all is truly there from the beginning.  Careful viewers could catch it if they are looking at the right time.

As far as blank stares go, Mount has it down so his casting likely is perfect though I’d wonder what an actor able to convey greater range with such little outward dialogue could have done.  Cornish earns points for committing to a gratuitous nude scene but scores the most in the way she’s able to keep a poker face far longer than we might expect from the character. How much his recent Oscar win will get people to check this one out is anyone’s guess but if they do, they’ll be treated to an all-in Hopkins performance and not merely a quick money grab like a number of his peers are starting to sign up for (I’m looking at you, Morgan Freeman and Vanquish from a few weeks back.)  Hopkins delivers the single best scene in the entire film and it’s a doozy of a monologue.  If you haven’t already, follow The Virtuoso up with The Father and watch his masterful skill really go to town. 

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.

Movie Review ~ World War Z

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The Facts:

Synopsis: United Nations employee Gerry Lane traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to destroy humanity itself.

Stars: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Fana Mokoena, Moritz Bleibtreu, Ruth Negga

Director: Marc Foster

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: So far 2013 has been a very good year for zombies.  With the continued success of The Walking Dead on television, the February release of the surprisingly great “zom-com” Warm Bodies, and now the pulse-quickening epic World War Z…it’s not a bad time to crave brains.  I have to admit that with each new trailer for World War Z I grew less interested…mostly because it seemed like a run-of-the mill summer blockbuster that would open big and disappear within a few weeks.  So you can imagine my surprise when ten minutes in I was white knuckling it in my seat, barely able to catch a breath.

Many felt that Max Brooks’s 2006 novel, written as an oral history, would have been better suited for a television series/mini-series and not as a multi-million dollar picture starting one of the biggest A-listers out there.  Those same people should enjoy a nice meal of their own words because the novel has been brought to life in slick fashion that never feels like its cheating on the source material.  The film opens big and for the next two hours rarely lets the audience come up for air as we are taken along for the globe-hopping, zombie killing ride.

Pitt (The Counselor) is a retired investigator for the United Nations living a seemingly peaceful life with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters.  As they get ready to start their day we can hear in the background news reports of virus outbreaks in other cities but given that it’s not in their neck of the woods the family pays no attention.  Soon they are packed up and heading out for their day when traffic jams put them in the center of madness as the entire city population starts to become infected around them.

Calling on his old contacts, Pitt eventually gets his family to safety but is then tapped to lead the investigation to find the origin of the outbreak.  This takes him away from his loved ones and into a mystery that moves him from one end of the globe to another…this is one guy who has a full passport by the time the credits roll.  Part of the fun of the film is following Pitt from as he country hops because you never know who he’ll meet or who will survive.  There are plenty of surprises in the movie, not the least is that Pitt is still a proven star who can easily navigate a picture filled with international actors and accents.

Thought Pitt is the star of the show, director Marc Foster (bouncing back nicely from the dreary Bond entry Quantum of Solace) spreads the love globally employing many new faces to fill the roles of people Pitt encounters in his journey.  Enos is so brilliant on TV in The Killing and though she starts strong her character is unfortunately eventually relegated to shouting Pitt’s name in the phone as the time between their connections grows longer.  James Badge Dale is an actor that seems to pop up a lot lately (he’s also in The Lone Ranger) and he’s put to good, albeit brief use, as part of the puzzle Pitt must solve to save the human race.  Israeli actress Daniella Kertesz is a force to be reckoned with too as a solider that accompanies Pitt on a most harrowing airline ride.

Then there’s the zombies.  Not merely brain dead shufflers, these zombies take a page from Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie classic 28 Days Later… and sprint after their prey.  Moving so fast amps up the adrenaline yet it doesn’t overwhelm the bottom line and the film takes care to explain behavior of the zombies/infected in a way that seems fresh and unexpected.  Even a sequence set in a sterile lab late in the film has little frenzied action at all and still manages to make the sweat bead up on your forehead.

These little character moments (from the living and the infected) do not go unnoticed and that’s what winds up setting World War Z apart from similar films.  It’s a brisk popcorn adventure that keeps trucking along with such expediency that you’ll probably be a little exhausted by the time the lights come up.  Yet even with its fast pace I left feeling that the movie had earned its quieter moments and called upon its actors in the right way to give solid performances.  One of the best films of the summer, it’s a movie that I feel will warrant repeated viewings alongside other zombie classics that came before it.

The Silver Bullet ~ World War Z

Synopsis: A U.N. employee is racing against time and fate, as he travels the world trying to stop the outbreak of a deadly Zombie pandemic.

Release Date:  June 21, 2013

Thoughts: Though not arriving until June of 2013, World War Z’s first trailer presents a fairly detailed description of the zombie apocalypse epic we’ll be lining up for next summer.  Helmed by Marc Forster (who might be done nursing his wounds from Quantum of Solace) and starring top tier A-Lister Brad Pitt, I found myself enjoying the trailer but getting the churning feeling like we’ve seen this all before in Independence Day and I Am Legend.  Why not just replace Pitt with Will Smith and call it a day?  I’m a bit zombie-d and end of the world-ed out so forgive me if I say I’ll for sure see this but I won’t be counting down the days.